Microsoft Sets Its Sights on Robotics

Microsoft released the preview version of a software toolkit for building robot applications today, 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 will let applications 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.

The company 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.

Vote of Confidence

Microsoft's entry to the field is a vote of confidence that could accelerate the development of robots for industrial, service, and entertainment use. It's not the first company to make such a play, however: Among the software platforms available, rival Sun Microsystems has long promoted its Java software for developing robot applications.

Microsoft's platform appears to be for robots that either run Windows or act as clients connected to Windows PCs, according to its robotics Web site. It will provide technical information so that other software and hardware vendors can make their products compatible with its tools, it said.

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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