Alibaba makes shopping accessible for the vision impaired

E-commerce giant Alibaba has developed new technology to make it possible for blind and partially sighted people to shop online, according to an article on Alibaba’s news site Alizila.

Alibaba plans to launch Smart Touch, an affordable silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens, later this year.

The plastic film includes three mini buttons on each side that sensory-enabled. Pressing on each one will trigger a different command, such as “go back”, “return to homepage” and “confirm”.

Depending on the app, the buttons can lead to different destinations, such as “My Shopping Cart,” “Tmall Global,” and “Tmall Supermarket” in the Taobao app.

Smart Touch is a joint effort of Alibaba’s Damo Academy and China’s Tsinghua University to improve the smartphone experience for the blind.

The technology also has an “ear touch” feature, which gives blind and visually impaired users a simple way to listen to text clearly and privately in public, without the need for headphones. It senses when the users is holding the phone to their ear and automatically routes the sound output from the loudspeaker to the earpiece speaker.

In October last year, Alibaba added Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to the pages of its online marketplace Taobao, an artificial intelligence-driven feature that reads text written on images.

Before adopting OCR, Taobao’s 300,000 daily active users who are blind or have reduced vision would have used screen-reading software that simply announced “image” as it scanned the page. By early December, OCR was being used to read close to 100 million images per day, Alizila reported.

“Images are becoming ever more important in the shopping experience,” said Wang Yongpan, algorithm specialist who led the OCR upgrade.

“A typical product page on the site contains about 40 images, and most product specifications and descriptions are often found within images, rather than typed out in plain text.”

Yongpan said that while Alibaba has been using OCR for many years in various capacities, the technology’s accuracy in reading images has grown exponentially due to advances in machine learning.

According to Taobao president Jiang Fan, making the platform more inclusive, user-friendly and a home for creativity is part of its larger strategy.

“If I had to do one thing this year, that would be to make Taobao simpler and bring [us] back to our original purpose,” he said.

“Alibaba is famously known by its motto, ‘To make it easy to do business anywhere’.”

The OCR launch was driven by Alibaba’s “Barrier-Free Lab”, which started with a handful of employees in 2011 and has since grown to hundreds of volunteers, ranging from programmers to user-experience designers.

Now, similar tools can be seen across Alibaba’s ecosystem, expanding from Taobao to B2C e-commerce site Tmall, payments affiliate Alipay, online delivery platform Ele.me, enterprise chat app Dingtalk, navigation firm Amap, music streaming app Xiami and internet browser UC Web, from desktop to mobile.

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