Microsoft has released the preview version of a software toolkit for building
robot applications, pledging to ignite the robot market in the same way it did the PC market some 20 years ago.
The software maker sees robotics as being on the verge of a rapid take-off,
fuelled by the availability of cheap, high-performance hardware components. But
the market is being held back by a need for better tools and a common software
platform that allows applications to be reused on different types of robots,
according to Microsoft.
Enter its Robotics Studio, a package of tools and runtime software that the
company will demonstrate Tuesday at the RoboBusiness conference in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. A technical preview of the software is available now for free
download. It is aimed at all types of robot builders, from commercial users to
academics and hobbyists.
Microsoft will also announce that it is funding a new robotics center at
Carnegie Melon University, due to open late this year. It didn't disclose the
size of its investment.
The company's entry to the field is a vote of confidence that could help expand
the market in areas like home robotics kits, or services applications such as
robots that clean floors. It's not the first company to make such a play: rival
Sun Microsystems Inc. has long promoted its Java software for robot
Stephen Cameron, a robotics expert with Oxford University's Computing
Laboratory, said Microsoft appears to be focussing on areas like robotic
vehicles rather than on serious industrial applications, where precise
equipment requires the use of high-end algorithms.
"It's also bringing in some stuff from the computer games side to make the
simulation of a system easier. You can build up a virtual robot and make it
jump around and do stuff before you build the actual robot itself," Cameron
said. That capability comes from the PhysX processing engine Microsoft has
licensed from Ageia Technologies Inc.
Microsoft has also partnered with Lego Group, which makes the Mindstorms kit
for building robots. The companies may hope to market a combined product for
the holiday shopping season, Cameron noted.
A common software platform for robots doesn't really exist today, so
Microsoft's efforts will be interesting to watch, he said. "Right now it's a
pretty specialized market."
Microsoft's platform is for robots that either run Windows or act as clients
connected to Windows PCs, according to its robotics Web site, at
http://msdn.microsoft.com/robotics/. It will provide technical information so
that other software and hardware vendors can make their products compatible
with its tools.
Microsoft Robotics Studio includes a software runtime, or execution
environment, that can run in a variety of devices with hardware ranging from
8-bit processors up to 32-bit systems with multicore processors. It also
includes visual programming tools for creating and debugging applications.
The tools include a handful of software libraries and services, but Microsoft
is counting on third parties to flesh these out and extend its platform, it
said. Programs can be developed using the languages in Microsoft's Visual
Studio and Visual Studio Express products -- C# and Visual Basic .Net -- as
well as its JScript and Iron Python languages.
The software released Tuesday isn't ready yet for commercial use, Microsoft
said, and it didn't offer a timetable for shipping the final product. Technical
previews are typically used to gather feedback that's used to refine the
product before it's finalized.
Tandy Trower, the general manager of Microsoft's robotics group, likened the
state of the robotics industry to that of the PC industry in its early days.
Among the problems: hardware is fragmented, applications aren't portable and
good development tools are missing, he wrote on Microsoft's Web site.
Microsoft hopes that by providing a common software platform for robots, and
encouraging third parties to create compatible applications and tools, it will
be able to grow the industry much as its ubiquitous Windows operating did for