How Facebook is helping the blind ‘see’ pictures

Facebook has developed software that can read photographs and tell visually impaired people what they depict.

The new programme aims to help blind or partially sighted Facebook users decipher what’s going on in the estimated 1.8 billion images uploaded to social networks every day.

The software has been developed by Facebook engineer Matt King, who lost his sight as a result of a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. King told the BBC: "On Facebook, a lot of what happens is extremely visual. And, as somebody who’s blind, you can really feel like you’re left out of the conversation, like you’re on the outside."

Up until this point, blind people have been using software called ‘screenreaders’ to turn the contents of a computer screen into speech or braille, but it can only read text.

King’s new tech uses Facebook’s in-house object-recognition software to convert images as well.

"Our artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where it’s practical for us to try to get computers to describe pictures in a meaningful way," said King.

"This is in its very early stages, but it’s helping us move in the direction of that goal of including every single person who wants to participate in the conversation."

At the moment, the software is trained to recognise about 80 objects, but as more images are scanned into Facebook’s object-recognition software, the more sophisticated it will become.

There are also plans for the software to use face recognition so users can discover family and friends within photos.

The head of Facebook’s accessibility team, Jeff Wieland, has said the site is investing in accessibility and working on strategies for different communities.

As Facebook and other social media sites become ever more visual, software such as this will be key to making sure visually impaired users are able to make the most out of Facebook and Twitter and not feel excluded.

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