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Suddenly, the race appears to be on to help blind and visually impaired people enjoy if not actually see images transmitted via social media. We recently wrote about Twitter’s new 420 character image description field. Now Facebook is in the game with another solution to image content communication, using an entirely different approach.

Facebook’s new automatic alternative text, like the Twitter image description field, works in conjunction with mobile phones with screen reader apps that read text content out loud. The new Facebook feature however, doesn’t require the image sender to add image descriptions or do anything extra at all. Facebook, in conjunction with Cornell University, conducted a study on how the visually impaired including blind people experience taking and sharing photos, interpret visual content, and respond to images on social networks. Based on their studies they developed an image recognition engine that attempts to identify what’s in an image.

For example, when a blind person with reader software in her phone swipes over an image in Facebook with automatic alternate text on board, the image engine pops up a window that reads Image may contain: followed by a list of items it detected and interpreted. For example, a shot of two people at the beach wearing sunglasses and smiling might have the following pop-up “Image may contain” information: two people, smiling, sunglasses, outdoor, sun, water. The disclaimer at the beginning of each description is necessary because at least in this early stage in development the engine could make mistakes or miss something important.

The advantage of the Facebook solution is that it happens automatically. Twitter’s image descriptions may be more accurate, but they also require the sender to input the image description. We can only imagine how powerful the Facebook solution could be if its facial recognition technology is called into use by the automatic alternative text app. However it all plays out in the future, the greatest benefit to blind and visually impaired people is that the two major social media programs are taking big steps adding some of the benefits of images. More will be better, but even the start is a very good thing.