Alibaba’s Taobao online marketplace in China has adopted new technology to improve the shopping experiences of blind and sight-impaired users, including an artificial intelligence-enabled feature that reads text written on webpage images, according to Alibaba's news site Alizila.
The report stated that Taobao, which has about 300,000 daily active users who are blind or have partial vision, has been using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology on its shopping pages since late last year.
An Alibaba technology specialist told Alizila that the typical product page on Taobao has about 40 images, many with descriptions within them. By last month, OCR was being used to read image-based text on almost 100 million images daily.
Taobao's technological advancements are a significant development for sight-impaired shoppers. With the development of OCR, even more may start using the site after becoming aware of the new technology tool.
Until now, those consumers may have been assisted by screen-reading software as they shopped on the online marketplace, but would still miss a lot. Previously, most software would simply say "image" as it scanned the page, rather than be able to identify the picture. That may have left valuable information unread on sites where product specifications often appear as users hover over product images.
Alibaba reportedly has been developing a number of accessibility initiatives for several years. The company’s "Barrier-Free Lab" has been working on such projects since 2011. It developed OCR in recent years and has continued to improve the technology until it proved viable and accurate enough for daily use by online shoppers.
Alibaba seems to be ready to promote much of the work it has been doing around such accessibility projects, and perhaps the sector will start to hear more about what other retailers are doing in this arena. Wegmans, for example, debuted a new mobile app last summer that helps visually-impaired shoppers connect with an in-store agent to help them navigate around stores, according to a Grocery Dive post.
Retailers always are trying to find new ways of enhancing shopping experiences and drawing more consumers to their stores, websites and apps. Technologies like OCR can help them make the most of these opportunities.