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Microsoft turns to robots

Microsoft turns to robots

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

applications.

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

PCs.


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