Microsoft enters the robotics market

Microsoft released the preview version of a software toolkit for building robot applications on Tuesday, 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.

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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James Niccolai

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