Matt King opened a Facebook account in 2009.
His wife was an avid user of the social network and there were a lot of people he wanted to connect with, so he figured he’d give it a try.
Unfortunately, it took him an entire Saturday morning to figure out how to navigate to his list of friends and see their profiles.
“It felt like work,” King told Business Insider. “It wasn’t good.”
King, who joined Facebook as an accessibility specialist in June 2015 after 25 years at IBM, grew up legally blind and lost whatever limited vision he had in college. His initial experience with Facebook left him feeling frustrated and isolated.
He channeled those emotions while helping develop technology that launched April 5 — technology that’s intended to drastically improve the way blind and visually impaired people use Facebook.
It’s called “automatic alternative text,” and here’s how it works: If you use screen reader software in English, it will read aloud to you a description of a photo’s content. (Click on the video below to see some examples.)
The system could drastically change the way the world’s 285 million visually impaired people interact with the social network.
Right now, Facebook’s system can recognise and label relatively basic categories — like cars, aeroplanes, trees, water, and people smiling. The idea is to only identify objects when it’s highly confident in its accuracy. But in the future, the system might be able to get more precise and identify specific models of cars, for example.
When I visited Facebook’s New York City headquarters in February, I watched a demo of the new technology.
King, who uses a screen reader — a software application that reads aloud the text displayed on a screen — scrolled down to a photo of tall trees under a bright blue sky. The photo was captioned, “With my college buddies in my favourite place — ready for a great weekend!” Immediately, he heard the sentence, “Image may contain sky, tree, outdoors.”
When he scrolled down to another photo, of a pizza pie, captioned “Sunday night splurge,” he heard, “Image may contain pizza.”
For those who aren’t visually impaired, the technology might seem rudimentary. But King reminded me to compare it to no information at all.
Before April 5, when someone using a screen reader scrolled down to a photo in their newsfeed, they would hear details like the name of the user who posted the photo, the timestamp, and the caption. But as in the case of “Sunday night splurge,” captions often omit information about what’s actually pictured, leaving visually impaired people to only imagine.
Automatic alt text was developed by Facebook’s accessibility team, which launched five years ago. The team’s goal is to make Facebook an enjoyable experience for everyone, and part of their work is dedicated to developing products specifically for people with disabilities.
The team is led by Jeff Wieland, who joined Facebook to work on community operations nine years ago.
When he pitched the idea of an accessibility team a few years later, Wieland, who had been pre-med in college, was intrigued by the possibility that he could use his technological prowess to help people with disabilities.
He’d gotten feedback from users with disabilities, including blind people, that Facebook’s technology didn’t create a great experience for them.
“Disability can be a really isolating thing,” he said. His hope is that automatic alt text, along with other products the team is working on, will foster a sense of social connection among those with disabilities.
You can try out the technology for yourself if you use Facebook on any iOS device. Just turn on VoiceOver (Apple’s screen reading software), listed under general settings. Then open the Facebook app and scroll through your news feed; when you swipe past a photo, the technology will tell you what might be in it.
In the future, King and Wieland said that they’d like to see the same technology used beyond their own products.
In 2014, Facebook created a public resource called the Accessibility Toolkit, which includes guidelines for developing an accessibility program. And React, Facebook’s open-source front-end framework for building web and mobile products, supports accessibility.
Facebook also contributes to the Accessible Rich Interaction Application (ARIA) standards, which indicate how to make web pages more accessible; King is an editor on the standards.
At this point, Facebook readily admits that automatic alt text is a “work in progress.”
But ultimately, said King, “what we’re trying to do is make a more inclusive platform and make the world a better place.”