Alibaba Makes Online Shopping Accessible to Vision Impaired

April Davis By April Davis | 25 Jan 2019

Alibaba-owned Taobao is working on new tech that will help vision-impaired consumers use its online platform.

According to a report from Alibaba’s news group, Alizila, the Chinese marketplace is launching new technology that has been designed to benefit blind and partially sighted individuals.

In the past, users with impaired vision have used third-party screen-reading software if they wanted to shop online. Now, Alibaba is looking to create a more seamless user experience for these shoppers by creating its own tech in-house.

For instance, in October 2018 Taobao reportedly introduced Optical Character Recognition technology on each of its product pages. This AI-powered shopping feature reads out the text written on images to tell users about the product that’s on offer. Within two months of the release, Alizila says the software was being used to read almost 100 million images on a daily basis.

While this tech isn’t a revolutionary concept for Alibaba, the algorithm specialist that led the most recent upgrade and roll-out of the Optical Character Recognition tech, Wang Yongpan said that advancements in machine learning capabilities have led to drastic improvements in the technology’s capabilities.

“Images are becoming ever more important in the shopping experience,” he told Alizilia, going on to explain that on a typical product page that has roughly 40 images, there are more product descriptions contained in the images than there are in the text on the page.

To advance the options Alibaba gives vision-impaired users, the company is also working with Tsinghua University in China on a $15 billion global research program that will improve the mobile experience for blind and vision impaired shoppers. Scheduled to launch later in the year, Smart Touch is a mobile app that works with a silicone film that’s placed over a smartphone screen to create a new intelligent user interface for shoppers. Each available button will assist users with completing actions like returning to the home page, going to their shopping cart and accessing apps and web pages like Tmall Supermarket and Mobile Taobao.

Smart Touch can also be used in collaboration with Alibaba’s Ear Touch feature, which allows shoppers to listen to product descriptions privately in public spaces, without having to use headphones. Using a shape-finding algorithm, Ear Touch is reportedly able to sense when a user is holding the phone and will re-direct the sound from the loudspeaker to the earpiece speaker.

Facebook, Instagram, Microsoft, IBM and Google are also currently working on tech that will improve digital user experiences for disabled consumers.

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