Touching A Face on Facebook

March 7, 2011

An image of a furless lion, reproduced from a computer image.

"Furless Lion" by Kernon Dillon, reproduced from a computer image via 3-D printing by Shapeways (via Blendernation.com).

With websites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, social media has exploded onto the public’s consciousness. Several years ago, it would be hard to imagine any company catching up to Google in the number of website visits — which is exactly what Facebook has done. With 500 million users and growing, Facebook has become a powerful social networking and advertising tool. It even helped spark this year’s anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world, leading one delighted Egyptian to name his newborn daughter “Facebook.” Yet, for the world’s blind and visually-impaired, Facebook’s rich multi-media platform presents a challenge.

Photos and videos are Facebook’s dominant mode of communication. With the ease of uploading photos and downloading high-capacity video streams, Facebook essentially acts as a major gateway for information sharing between friends, groups, businesses and causes. Clearly, without photos and videos, Facebook would not be what it is today.

With more people signing up on Facebook and using it as an essential tool for social communication and networking, how can a blind Facebook user access the photo album of a friend’s trip to Florida, or a hilariously funny user-created video? Descriptive captions on a picture can help, but not everyone gets around to writing up captions. Even then, user-generated descriptive captions do not always completely describe what the picture looks like.

A professor at Arizona State University is developing an innovative piece of technology based on “tactile printing,” enabling blind users to “see” an image on a computer. While Braille and other tactile devices are used to read text, text-to-Braille computer applications are not always effective for websites with a heavy multimedia presence. Although tactile printing has a long way to go before it can be commercially developed, it is an approach that could address the blind’s strong desire to acquire better access to visual images.

A similar technological innovation, 3-D printing, also has potential promise. While it is currently expensive, the way it reproduces images in three-dimensional format would also make it accessible for the blind. The 3-D printing industry is developing home printing solutions which in the foreseeable future — when it is affordable — would be an useful tool to reproduce images and pieces otherwise inaccessible to the blind.

Two years ago, Facebook worked with the American Foundation for the Blind to make its site more accessible to the blind and visually-impaired. Measures include providing a full HTML version of Facebook’s site which is easier on screen readers for the blind, developing shortcut keys to navigate around some areas of the site, and including an audio CAPTCHA feature for logging in.

Yet, Facebook’s secret sauce has always been the ease with which photos and videos are shared throughout the site, so it is still a challenge for those with major vision loss. To comply with Web accessibility standards, images posted on a website must include an <alt>-tagged caption in the HTML code so it can be accessed by screen readers. With users uploading billions of photos onto their social pages, this standard is difficult to enforce on Facebook and other social networking sites reliant on multimedia.

A solution that relies on the image itself to transmit information to a blind person is a piece of useful information that has potential benefits beyond the blind and visually-impaired community. Just as Google’s automatic transcription feature opened up thousands of videos to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers — and made these videos textually searchable on Google’s search engine — the information generated from tactile printing technologies could have major implications for graphic designers, prototype developers, and others who search for image information.

It is not exactly Star Trek yet, but we’re getting there.

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