Facebook’s accessibility ambitions

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Facebook’s work around accessibility took center stage in 2016 when it launched something called automatic alt-text (AAT) for people using screen readers to identify what’s displayed. AAT uses object recognition technology to generate descriptions of photos on Facebook. But what Facebook deployed in 2016 represented the mere beginning of its efforts, Facebook Accessibility Specialist Matt King told me ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

“It was about as simple as you could get and still be valuable,” King said about version one of AAT, which initially launched for News Feed, profiles and groups. It later became available in 28 other languages before adding 17 different activities to the descriptions, like walking, running and so on.

“So we’re getting closer to being able to do a sentence, which is a long-run goal, instead of just having, you know, a list of words or concepts that describe a photo,” he said.

Then, last December, Facebook started taking advantage of facial recognition capabilities. That ensured that, even if a friend wasn’t tagged, someone using a screen reader would be able to know if their friend was in the photo.

“So, it’s bit by bit getting richer and of course there’s a lot of potential on the horizon,” King said.

Today, however, the product is still in its infancy — a toddler, at most, he said.

“It has a long way to go to even become like an adolescent-level product, but I think that’s going to happen in the next couple of years,” King said.

As a grown-up, this product would be more integrated with the photo viewer — the enlarged, full-screen version of the photo that lets you see photo tags and whatnot. With that integration, King envisions people being able to move their fingers around the photo and then be told about specific objects in the photo.

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