The first day of Microsoft’s annual developers conference was light on product announcements and heavy on its vision for technology that aligns with what people want and need.

Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella opened the company’s annual developer show Wednesday by highlighting the debate over technology’s growing role in society, whether advances were a force for good or not.

Two hours of presentations and coding demonstrations later, Microsoft gave its emphatic answer to that question in unveiling a research project demonstrating how its technology can help the blind to see.

Saqib Shaikh, a Microsoft software engineer who lost his sight at age 7, was shown in a video walking down the street wearing a product he helped develop.

After encountering an obstacle, he taps his glasses and a machine voice, taking advantage of image-recognition technology, tells him the obstruction is a skateboarder doing a trick. Later, the glasses read a lunch menu aloud and identify for Shaikh the emotions of colleagues across a meeting-room table.

Shaikh’s appearance onstage with Nadella after the brief video drew the loudest applause of the day from an audience of thousands of developers who create and build software. For Microsoft, the video was a clear indication of the company’s ambitions to put its technology to work solving more challenging problems than document formatting or server maintenance.

The demonstration, and Microsoft’s presentations on the first day of the conference here, were relatively light on product announcements and heavy on Microsoft’s vision for technology that better understands what people want and need.

The technology industry, enabled by powerful software that can recognize and react to patterns, is on the cusp of introducing software that can help users without the aid of a keyboard or a mouse, Microsoft says.

Human language is the new user interface, Nadella said.

“We want to take the power of human language … and apply it more pervasively to the computing interface,” Nadella said.

Microsoft imagines a world where instead of navigating to a Web browser or picking up a phone to book a hotel room, you might make the reservation by telling a voice-activated digital assistant to do it for you. Instead of your combing through receipts after a business trip, an intelligent agent will identify those documents on its own and help plug them into an expense report.

This vision, for now, is more aspiration than reality.

In practice, Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant introduced two years ago, remains limited to a basic set of features like opening an email or setting a reminder.’s Alexa, Google’s Now, and Facebook’s M are designed to perform similar functions.

But Microsoft is still working on it, and on Wednesday invited developers to help.

Nadella introduced a set of tools for developers to build Cortana-like capabilities — speech recognition and machine learning, for example — into their applications, and design intelligent chat bots. Skype, Microsoft’s voice and video chat service, will support chat bots and interact with Cortana.

In an effort to head off concerns about artificial intelligence and privacy, Nadella outlined a set of principles for intelligent computing. Software, he said, should augment human abilities, be trustworthy, and be inclusive and respectful.

Intelligence in computers should be designed “so that it gets the best out of humanity, not the worst,” he said.

Microsoft’s Tay, the chat bot introduced to Twitter last week, failed on that count after the company failed to plan for the reality of the Internet. It was shut down after users taught Tay a string of offensive statements.

Nadella said the bot “was not up to this mark. And so we’re back to the drawing board.”

As far as Microsoft’s other products in the works, the company revealed a few updates.

• HoloLens, the augmented-reality headset, started shipping to developers on Wednesday, Microsoft said.

“I have waited for this moment for a very long time,” said Alex Kipman, one of the creators of the device.

Development editions cost about $3,000, and their release is a key milestone on the road to boosting commercial interest in new hardware.

Microsoft touted progress on that front, showing a slide of partner companies, as well as governmental and educational institutions interested, in pilot projects with Holo­Lens. Among those listed were Volkswagen, Airbus and NASA.

• Terry Myerson, the executive vice president of Microsoft’s Windows and Devices group, said a slate of updates to Windows 10 would arrive about the time of the software’s first anniversary, in July.

Coming in the update were support for touchscreeen pen input, fingerprint or face-based recognition to log in to applications, and enhancements to the Windows 10 iteration of Cortana.

Myerson said 270 million devices were running Windows 10, up from 200 million in January.

• Microsoft spent some time touting arguably its most important developer initiative — the Universal Windows Platform, the new Windows 10 framework from which developers can build applications.

The pitch is that UWP lets developers write an application once and, with relative ease, use the code for desktop, tablet, and mobile-optimized variants of Windows.

The question for developers, though, is why build a new app instead of trying to reach users through a Web browser or traditional Windows desktop app. Microsoft’s tiny sliver of the smartphone market doesn’t make the ease of reaching that audience quickly a compelling hook, analysts say.

So far, “Microsoft has made it as easy as possible,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with researcher IDC. “But not easy enough” to justify the expense in many cases.

Kevin Gallo, who heads Microsoft’s Windows developer program, introduced a tool designed to get developers to sign on to UWP. The software converts existing desktop app code to modern, Windows Store-ready apps. And in an effort to boost interest in putting applications into the store, Myerson said Windows 10 users had visited the online marketplace 5 billion times.