Commentary: Getty-Google partnership misses the mark on accessibility

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 09:42am

The Getty Museum recently announced that it would be the first museum to collaborate with Google, and using Google’s image recognition application Google Goggles, offer visitors the chance to learn more about the artworks.

Visitors to the Getty Museum can take a photo using Google Goggles on their Android phone or iPhone and immediately access more information about the work of art as well as commentary from artists and curators.

Technology is helping to make museums and galleries accessible to people with a disability. Mobile applications, such as the one developed by Keen Guides, are providing accessible video tours of museums, colleges and public venues to people who are Deaf or hearing impaired. There are also some museums and galleries offering audio description of artworks or artefacts through MP3 players such as the iPod Touch for people who are blind or vision impaired.

Partnerships such as the one between Getty and Google Goggles have the potential to open up galleries and museums for people who are blind or vision impaired. Imagine going to the Getty Museum and, using Google Goggles, photographing a piece of art to instantly access information about it: what it looks like, the short description available next to the artwork plus all the new information available through this partnership.

While the potential is there, the app’s inherent barriers make this a distant dream. Not only does it rely on the user physically aligning the phone and the image, but the app itself is inaccessible on both iPhone and Android.

On the Google Accessibility website, Google states, “As part of Google’s mission to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful, we’re committed to making accessibility a reality for all of our users, including those with disabilities.”

Yet their record of accomplishment is patchy. A recent study into the accessibility of Google Apps for Education has shown a significant number of accessibility issues which could severely hamper or prevent people with vision impairment from being able to use these apps.

iPhone owners used to be able to use the features offered by Google Goggles via the accessible alternative, Noogle Noggles, built by a third-party development company – that is, until the app was removed from the iTunes store because the company stopped supporting it.

On the positive side, Google’s YouTube was one of the first mainstream video sharing platforms to support captioned video. Google provides the online captioning software CaptionTube so that anyone can create captions for any YouTube video. They also have an auto-transcribe feature that allows you to ask YouTube to caption your video for you using Google’s speech recognition software (although quality of the transcription is still variable).

Google Goggles, or an app like it, could be revised for accessibility. For instance, an app could use proximity detection so that users don’t have to physically line up the artwork or artefact and take a photo. Also, the interface itself could be made compatible with audio navigation.

The fact remains that mainstream technologies like Google Goggles can be useful to people with a disability. What Google and others can learn from this is that accessibility needs to be considered from the outset, rather than as a bonus feature at some point down the track. Without this in mind, the wonderful information put together by Getty and the experiences it provides remain beyond the reach of many.

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