"Expect a new age of robotic applications," says Georgia Tech's Tucker Balch, associate professor in its College of Computing. He sees the release of Microsoft Robotics Studio leading to new generations of robots and robotic devices that will have applications and capabilities far beyond the present scope of the technology. The key, he says, is that the new software development kit significantly eases the creation of robotic applications.
In addition to making robots more commonplace in industry, Balch says the ease of developing new applications will lead to the technology being applied to economic sectors such as consumer products (see sidebar, "Robots, Computers and Education"). Microsoft itself speaks in terms of enabling robotics to catch up with their science-fiction counterparts in books like Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and movies such as "Star Wars."
The goal is to provide an affordable, open platform that makes it easier for robot developers to integrate hardware and software into their designs, says Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group. He describes a development kit that includes three areas of software. The first is a runtime architecture that can be used for all types of robots, from simple educational robots to sophisticated industrial designs.
Number two is a set of tools that makes programming and debugging robots easier. "We take advantage of the programming tools in Microsoft Visual Studio," says Trower, "but it's not limited to that -- robot developers can use almost any language they are comfortable with, and we also provide a visual programming language that makes it easy for anyone to create a robotic application."
The third part of the package is more than 30 tutorials, plus samples with source code that help users get started creating robotics applications.
For hobbyists, students and academics, Trower says the development kit is available to license free of charge. Commercial robot developers interested in generating revenue from applications, services and robots based on the kit can license it starting at $399.
Why robotics and why Microsoft?
Trower describes a realization that the robotics industry today looks quite a bit like the computer industry of 30 years ago. "Today you have very sophisticated industrial robots in factories doing things like building cars. You also have people using robots in education, and we're seeing more and more companies popping up that are trying to create commercial products with broader appeal. You've got entertainment robots and you have a large and enthusiastic hobbyist community."
The computer/robotics parallels go deeper. Trower compares today's robotic applications with the IBM mainframe applications of the 1970s. "But the problem was that it was a very fragmented industry. In the late 1970s, you had all of these architectures based on different processors and operating software, so there was no consistency and the programming tools were very crude. That made it hard to write applications, and it typically required rewriting code to move applications from, say, an Apple machine to one from Atari or RadioShack or Commodore."
Trower's point: "That was the first time that Microsoft provided a common ground for an emerging industry. By developing a version of BASIC and porting it to almost every hardware platform on the market, Bill Gates and Paul Allen provided a common lingua franca across different kinds of hardware, which helped get the software industry up and running."
Trower points to the same kind of fragmentation in today's robotics industry: "Robots use different operating systems, different hardware and different processors. So programming these things is very hard, the toolset is limited and reusability of code is very limited." Creating a robot application often requires starting from scratch, he adds.
Robots represent the next era of the PC, says Trower. "It doesn't mean that the PC goes away or that every PC becomes a robot. It's more subtle than that. It means that the technology moves on in wonderful new forms. In addition, the pervasiveness of wireless networking means that the mobile part of the robot can be a peripheral device that carries a very limited amount of inexpensive processing horsepower but is networked back to the processor on your PC. So the mobile device -- the device we think of as the robot -- can be very cheap and can be replaced very easily. And if it collects data, the data is stored on the PC so it isn't lost."
Microsoft says more than 30 third-party companies have pledged support -- companies such as Braintech, KUKA Robot Group, CordWare and Robosoft. Braintech plans to release a suite of software services under the brand name, VOLTS-IQ (Visual Object Location and Tracking Services), says Owen Jones, CEO of the provider of Vision Guided Robotics.