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Facebook's iOS apps describe photos to blind users

Facebook has launched a new feature on its iPhone and iPad apps that provides description of photos posted on the social network to visually impaired users.

Based on the inbuilt VoiceOver feature which reads out loud any written text, the new system hopes to remove the boundaries blind people experience when interacting with the network, which is becoming increasingly image-driven.

The technology currently offers rather limited descriptions and has a vocabulary of only 100 words including car, sky, dessert, baby, shoes and selfie. Over time, Facebook hopes to enable its artificial intelligence algorithms to provide more colourful depictions and even answer questions the user may ask about the image. For now, the user will learn what could be seen in the picture in only a few words, such as 'three smiling people outdoors'.

Until now, blind users were only told that someone had shared an image on the website, but had no chance of understanding what the image shows.

Facebook is approaching the roll-out of the technology with caution, hoping to avoid embarrassing teething problems. Last year Google caused a scandal when the image recognition feature of the Photos app labelled a photograph of two black people as ‘gorillas’.

The feature is currently only available in English for Apple's iOS platform, but will later be extended to the Android app and web browsers for use on computers.

Blind people are generally keen users of digital technology, which has allowed them to overcome many obstacles they face in their everyday life. Katherine Payne from the Royal London Society for Blind People described digital technology as the single biggest improvement in the lives of blind people since the development of the white cane.

Facebook hopes its efforts will keep the world’s 300 million blind and visually impaired people interested in the global social network, fearing they may feel put off by the growing amount of visual content.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hailed the photo description tool as "an important step towards making sure everyone has equal access to information and is included in the conversation".

On an average day, Facebook says more than 2 billion photos are posted on its social network and other apps that it owns, a list that includes Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.

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