Microsoft Sees Life Stirring in Robots

The software giant is about to enter the robotics space with a new software development suite.

PITTSBURGH—Microsoft has robot dreams.

The company on June 20 released a community technical preview or beta of its Microsoft Robotics Studio.

The companys robotics software development suite, previewed here at the Robo Business 2006 Conference, is designed to grant robot designers a framework for creating the code that serves as the brains behind the various sensors and servos that operate their bots. But it also shows the Redmond, Wash., companys interest in the space.

The new suite, due by the end of the year, is designed to apply to a wide range of robots, allowing users to program the most basic bots on up to more complex machines for industry, military or even private use.

But it also signals commitment by Microsoft to robotics, a field that many industry insiders—company chairman Bill Gates, who signed off on the suites development, among them—now believe is on the verge of an upswing.


"A lot of people have said this market is a lot like the early PC business was in the 1970s. It still has not really reached its potential," said Tandy Trower, general manager of the robotics project at Microsoft.

Then, "people were asking, Why would I want a PC? You hear that same question in the robotics space right now."

Where home computers have gone from novelties to near ubiquity in many areas of the world, Trower and others believe robots can do the same.

These days "You dont have that question [about PCs value] too often any more in the computer space," he said. "The PC has pretty much justified itself as an integral part of peoples daily interactions."

The robotics space, Trower believes, has a similar upside potential in the next five to 10 years.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about how robots are helping to save lives on the front lines.

Many companies, seeing that upside, are moving to get in on the ground floor of the industry.

Microsoft, for its part, is delivering its software tools, it says, with the aim of helping to speed the market along.

"What were doing is trying to put in place, through this robotics studio, a set of development tools that will make it possible for people to build applications to help further this potential along," Trower said.

Thus establishing a common framework for designers to use and carry with them from project-to-project or possibly from universities to corporations, Trower said.

The Robotics Studio will focus on delivering a scalable programming model that can tackle concurrency or the management of information from multiple inputs simultaneously, as well as providing software development and testing tools and sample applications.

Thus a person can get up and running on Robotics Studio, write and test an application for a given function or a given robot and then take that knowledge along to the next project, he said.

The studios application programming interface can scale partly because it uses different levels of abstraction—allowing a programmer to write code that directly interfaces with robots subsystems or add layers in between, Trower said.

Included are tools such as an application simulation environment, along with sample applications and tutorials for writing basic functions such as reading sensor values and turning motors on and off on up to autonomous navigation.

But Microsoft isnt out to foist its own programming model on the robotics industry. Microsoft will offer—ask even—for other hardware and software vendors to make their products compatible with the suite, Trower said.

"There are no exclusions from third parties to be able to participate in this," he said.

Thus Microsoft will demonstrate working demonstrations of its software tools from companies including Lego Group, MobileRobots, Parallax and Phidgets.

The company will also support a range of programming languages, including things like C++, Iron Python and JScript, he said. The company will also create a simple visual programming language—although it wont be in technical preview—that will allow programmers to work by linking boxes that represent functions of a robot.

Ultimately, "We think thats a good way to help people get boot-strapped into this," Trower said. "One of the things we think is very important here is the encouragement of the development of community."

In that respect, Microsoft is simply providing the "the plumbing layer so everyone doesnt have to reinvent the wheel," he said.

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