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.
It took him an entire Saturday morning, however, 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 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 Tuesday – technology that is intended to dramatically improve the way blind and visually impaired people use Facebook.
It’s called automatic alternative text, and it is able to recognize the content of certain images and create subtitles for them. Those who use screen-reader software, which reads aloud the text displayed on a screen, in English will then be able to hear a description of a photo’s content. (Click on the video below to see some examples.)
The system could change the way the world’s 285 million visually impaired people are able to interact with the social network.
Facebook’s system is now able to recognize and label relatively basic categories, such as cars, airplanes, trees, water, and people smiling. The idea is to identify objects only when the system is highly confident in its accuracy. But the system might one day 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, scrolled down to a photo of tall trees under a bright blue sky. The photo was captioned, “With my college buddies in my favorite 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 with no information at all.
Before Tuesday, using a screen reader while scrolling through photos in a Facebook News Feed would produce audio describing the name of the user who posted the photo, the time stamp, 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 studied premed in college, was intrigued by the possibility that he could use his technological prowess to help people with disabilities.
He had 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, the team would like to see the same technology used beyond its 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 acknowledges that automatic alt text is a “work in progress.”
But ultimately, King said, “What we’re trying to do is make a more inclusive platform and make the world a better place.”