Chrome will use AI to describe images for blind and low-vision users

Georgina Torbet
Contributing Writer
zlikovec via Getty Images

The internet can be a difficult place to navigate for people who are blind or who have low vision. A large portion of content on the internet is visual, and unless website creators use alt text to label their images, it's hard for users of screen readers or Braille displays to know what they show.

To address the issue, Google has announced a new feature for Chrome which will use machine learning to recognize images and offer text descriptions of what they show. It is based on the same technology which lets users search for images by keyword, and the description of the image is auto-generated.

"The unfortunate state right now is that there are still millions and millions of unlabeled images across the web," said Laura Allen, a senior program manager on the Chrome accessibility team. She understands the issue as she has low vision herself. "When you're navigating with a screen reader or a Braille display, when you get to one of those images, you'll actually just basically hear 'image' or 'unlabeled graphic,' or my favorite, a super long string of numbers which is the file name, which is just totally irrelevant."

An example of a descriptive text given by the feature would be "Appears to be fruits and vegetables at the market" for an image of a market stall. The descriptions are couched with "appears to be" so users know they are generated by a computer and may not be fully accurate.

The feature is available only for users with screen readers that output spoken feedback or Braille. The images descriptions will be read by the screen reader, but will not appear visually on the screen.

To enable image descriptions on Chrome, go to Settings, then to Advanced at the bottom of the settings page. Find the "Accessibility" section and enable "Get image descriptions from Google." The feature can also be enabled for single web pages by right clicking to bring up the context menu and selecting "Get Image Descriptions from Google."