A new mobile app, called ViaOpta Hello, has been unveiled to help hundreds of thousands of South Africans living with blindness and severe visual impairment.

The new app, which is powered by Microsoft Cognitive Services and the Windows 10 Universal App Platform, is the latest addition to Novartis’ suite of ViaOpta sight apps that collectively help to improve the independence of people who are blind and visually impaired.

ViaOpta Hello was co-created with patient organisations, including Retina International, and uses facial recognition software to recognise an individual from a list of people who have agreed to be identified by the app.

ViaOpta Hello identifies objects and people via a phone’s camera: by taking a picture once they enter a room, the user will then be told by the app what surrounds them, giving them critical information that those without a severe visual impairment can often take for granted.

The desktop version will also allow people to identify faces on photographs that they are sent, something that is currently inaccessible to many. This functionality is expected to be particularly useful in the workplace, where people living with blindness and severe visual impairment may feel isolated from discussions and inter-personal engagement.

As part of a series of international launches, ViaOpta Hello was introduced to South Africa at the OSSA 48th annual congress on Ophthalmology from 1 – 4 February at the Sandton Convention Centre and is now being prepared for launch to local users.

According to CEO and Country President of Novartis South Africa, Dr Thomas Kowallik, the new app can enhance quality of life for patients living with blindness and severe visual impairment.

“This is a great example of how we’re using our expertise and key partnerships with a leading tech company to create innovative digital solutions that really support blind and visually impaired people in their everyday lives. And while not all blind and visually impaired people have access to smart phones at this stage, we believe ViaOpta Hello is a significant move to enhance the quality of life of many,” said Dr Kowallik.

Over 730,000 people are registered as having ‘severe difficulty’ in seeing in South Africa  with the prevalence of sight disability in South Africa the highest of all disabilities (32%), and for every one blind person there are three to four people with low vision. Globally, there are around 252.6 million people affected by blindness and moderate-to-severe visual impairment.

“Microsoft believes accessibility and inclusion are essential to delivering on our mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. We’re excited for Novartis, thrilled that they are leveraging our AI technologies and look forward to seeing the value to people with sight loss,” said Corporate Vice President, Windows Marketing, Microsoft, Matt Barlow.

The app is available as a free download for iOS and Android mobile platforms. In addition, a desktop version is available on Windows 10 devices for those without smartphones.

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