RealTime IT News

When Computers Roam

Microsoft has been seen as slow in reacting to the advent of the Internet and mobile computing. But it's not going to be caught napping where robots are concerned.

In fact, the company is determined to lead in this area, not follow.

The company today unveiled the community technology preview (CTP) of Microsoft Robotics Studio (MRS), which it is billing as a development toolkit for commercial developers and academics to create robotic applications.

Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft robotics group, sees this as much more than a bunch of Robbie the Robots inadvertently crushing our toes as they move from room to room, warning whenever danger approaches.

Trower told internetnews.com that robotics represents the next logical leap in computing, going from a passive to a more proactive role in people's lives.

"Robotics is that dimension where the PC gets up off your desktop, it interacts in the environment that you're interacting with, and interacts with you in some new and novel ways," he said.

"So rather than being bound to the top of your desktop, or being bound to the keyboard or being bound to the mouse, it's actually taking in inputs in richer ways and interpreting them in richer ways and learning how to interact with you beyond being this block of technology that sits there on your desk."

Microsoft is not attempting to lock up the space, Trower added, but is simply trying to act as a federator of good ideas.

"This is not about Microsoft trying to force-feed a particular development approach. It's about enabling the community to bring the best of what they have together," he said.

Illah Norubakhsh, director of the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Robotics Innovation (established with funding provided by Microsoft), told internetnews.com that having such a force will help the industry move forward.

"You need to be able to integrate diverse sets of services onto a single robot, and one person or one team won't be able to do that.

So having a foundation that allows sharing at a modular level is a necessary requirement for that to succeed and it's exactly that kind of undertaking that Microsoft is making."

Norubakhsh added that Microsoft specifically requested that any code developed by CMU be made part of the public domain.

"That tells the story about what Microsoft's interest in this is," he said.

Although Microsoft plans to ship code later this year, Trower said that the company has no particular revenue expectations for this solution, or even a sense of the size of the market.

"While we're seeing some interesting development ideas, the real potential for the market may not be for another three to five years," he said.

During a preview at the 2006 RoboBusiness Conference and Exposition today, Microsoft showed working MRS demos from a number of companies in different industries, including Fischertechnik and Lego Group, which appeal to hobbyists, as well as robotics OEMs and component manufacturers such as MobileRobots, Parallax and Phidgets.

Moreover, another half-dozen commercial companies have expressed an interest in using MRS as a platform for robot products under development.

The Center for Robotics Innovation, set to open in late 2006, will operate a Web site for hobbyists, academics and commercial companies to share robotics ideas, technology and software.