Google has rolled out a new accessibility feature to the Canary Channel of Chrome in a bid to make screen readers more useful where images are concerned, according to a social media post from the company spotted by Techdows. The feature allows images that haven’t been marked with a description or other attributes such as ‘alt text’ to be described to users anyway.
Users effectively enable the new feature by giving the browser permission to send images that are being read by the screen reader to Google for analysis. Once the image analysis is complete, the description is sent back to the user’s screen reader to be read out in line with other text in exactly the same way images would normally be included.
Google says the feature will be coming at some point later this year for the general Chrome user base.
The feature's (probably) harmless caveat and getting started
The primary caveat to the new feature seems to be that it will give Google access to some of what the user is looking at but that may not actually be too big a deal. Users are given a way to turn that on and presumably off again with relative ease and the data being sent over would mostly be images that haven't been uploaded by the individual in question in any case. So it wouldn't just automatically be private photos that Google is receiving.
Turning on the screen reader augmentation is a straightforward process, with access easily available via a context click — right-click on most computers or an alt+click on Chrome OS devices.
With a screen reader installed, clicking on an image will now implement a "Get image descriptions from Google" in that menu. Users will be able to choose from 'Always' or 'Just once'. The system will either set a new preference in the deeper system settings to leave the feature on more permanently or return a description on a case-by-case basis depending on which option is selected.
Regardless of which option is chosen, Chrome then presents the user with a permissions card asking for consent to receive the picture data and return a description.
Permission can be revoked later on or immediately afterward for those who might be concerned about privacy. That's fairly intuitive too, accomplished by navigating to the Settings menu under the three-dot menu at the top-right-hand side of the UI and scrolling down to expand and access Advanced settings options. Under 'Accessibility', there will now be a toggleable option for getting "image descriptions from Google."
Why this matters
The new tool should prove extremely useful to augment screen readers where they fail for those who require those types of accessibility features for any number of reasons, building on other recent implementations over the past year or more. Primarily, that's because screen readers have a tendency to ignore images outright if there's no alt-text attribute set, simply skipping over the image instead. By turning on Google's new feature, users will be able to get a description from Google's image recognition algorithms instead.
The descriptions themselves won't necessarily be 100-percent accurate for now — hence its placement in the beta-focused Canary channel — but it will almost certainly improve over time before finding its way to the more typically used, consumer-ready Stable channel.
Coming later this year: Screen reader users can ask Chrome to get automatic image descriptions from Google when an image is missing alt text. Get a sneak preview now using Chrome Canary, just open the context menu! #a11y #CSUNATC19
— Google Accessibility (@googleaccess) March 14, 2019