Facebook can now describe images to blind people

New feature arrives as Twitter and Microsoft also make accessibility strides...

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Picture by: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

As leading social neworks become evermore image and video-heavy, Facebook has moved to ensure its blind users don't feel left out.

The company has spent the past 10 months developing a new feature called "automatic alternative text".

Now testing on smartphones with Apple iOs, Facebook's AI can scan images and interpret what is being displayed, relaying the information to visually-impaired users with screen reader technology.

Previously, Facebook's Newsfeed simply named the poster and said "photo".

With "automatic alternative text", a couple's typical holiday snap will, for example, give the audible description: "Image may contain: two people, smiling, sunglasses, sky, outdoor, water".

The object recognition technology is based on a neural network with billions of parameters that mimic the human brai. It has been trained with millions of examples thus far and can currently recognise approximately 100 common concepts, including bears, pizzas, smiling, trees, the sky, sunglasses and selfies.

Facebook is taking its time to fully roll out the technology, however, to avoid any potentially embarrassing inaccurate responses.

The descriptions will become smarter as time goes on.

While automatic alternative text is currently just being introduced for the English version of Facebook's iOS app in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there are plans for expansion in terms of platforms, countries and languages.

Here's how it works:

Facebook said in a statement:

"Every day, people share more than 2 billion photos across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.

"While visual content provides a fun and expressive way for people to communicate online, consuming and creating it poses challenges for people who are blind or severely visually impaired.

"With more than 39 million people who are blind, and over 246 million who have a severe visual impairment, many people may feel excluded from the conversation around photos on Facebook. We want to build technology that helps the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it".

The announcement comes one week after Twitter unveiled a new feature of their own to help the visually-impaired.

Tweeters will now have the option of adding accompanying descriptions to images uploaded to its iOS and Android apps.

The 420 characters available allow for detailed explanations that can then be vocalised by screen readers.

On Thursday, Microsoft gave a demonstration of its in-development Seeing AI app.

With the help of a smartphone's camera or smart glasses, the app can identify things in a visually-impaired person's environment, from objects to actual human emotions: