Skip to comments.Microsoft Moves into Robotics
Posted on 09/10/2006 5:45:06 PM PDT by annie laurie
The software giant thinks it can make robotic engineering easier with a set of standards: its own of course
Microsoft believes the demand for consumer, research, and military robots will grow significantly--and it wants to own the market.
At the annual RoboBusiness conference this past June, the software giant released the first "community technical preview" of Microsoft Robotics Studio (MSRS). Now, in its second preview version, MSRS is both a product and the lynchpin of a new educational push: the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE).
Founded by Microsoft Research, Georgia Tech, and Bryn Mawr College, the computer science and robotics program is aimed at college and graduate students. Together, the product and program are designed to bypass small, cheap robots, such as the Roomba (see "Hacking the Roomba"), in favor of a world of robots that are more complex and PC-like.
MSRS is a visual programming environment, similar to the LabView-based software provided with LEGO's Mindstorms NXT kit. It allows users to drag and drop box-like symbols for simple, low-level behaviors and services (such as accessing a sensor) and string them together to create complex robotic programs. MSRS also uses the AGEIA PhysX physics engine, which powers many PC games, to provide a visual simulation of the robot and its environment, complete with realistic friction, drag, gravity, and other factors.
Another feature of MSRS is that it provides a method for controlling robots over a network through a PC's Web browser. In addition to requiring Windows on the PC side, MSRS robots must use a CPU that supports Microsoft's .NET runtime, which could rule out the inexpensive and less power-hungry processors used in many robots today.
"We're trying to make it easier for people to write applications for robots," says Trandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's Robotics Group. He says the current robotics community is too diverse, with many different hardware and software variants, to be efficient. "[MSRS is] like what Microsoft did with MS Basic," he says, "in smoothing out the fragmentation of PC hardware." Trower claims that MS Basic became a "de facto standard," which then allowed developers to write to one target and use a set of common tools.
"Robotics programming is very ad hoc," says Tucker Balch, associate professor of Georgia Tech's College of Computing and director of the IPRE. He notes that many students in robotics often have to spend much of their time recreating solutions that already exist to basic problems (such as how to program a wheeled robot to move in a straight line).
"Each robot is a one-off new development," says Balch. A large part of the work, he says, is making modules--software components that take input from sensors and deliver output other components can comprehend--work together. This low-level busy work can thwart his pedagogical goal: to teach 3,000 students about computer science at a high level; "so the robotics part has to be easy and robust," he says. Compounding the problem, various sensors and other robot components are made by different companies. "At present," Balch says, "we have to get source code and manually integrate the pieces."
Robot, beboot thyself!
Scary thought, isn't it? ;-)
can they use a keyboard?
The United States should try harder to rival Japan in the robotics market.
As a programmer, I can see how this could really push the industry forward. Everyone seems to recoil in horror at the name "Microsoft," but remember that we see our best technological advances when real standards are developed to allow interoperability and reduce redundant development. For example, the Internet couldn't really take off until people agreed to use HTML - even though there were other protocols out there that were technically superior. It was only when everybody agreed to use the same standard that they could actually transmit meaningful information.
Microsoft is in as good a position as anybody to be on the forefront of setting those standards in the area of robotics.
Where has this author been? I installed a CNC machine w/ a WinNT4 controller some 7 years ago...
"we see our best technological advances when real standards are developed to allow interoperability and reduce redundant development."
And when MS actually adopts standards, instead of believing that whatever they create are the standards, I'll agree with you.
For starters, why can't I deploy a generic DNS server for my customers, instead of a M$ DNS server the first time I install a W2K3 app server?
There is good reason to be leery of Microsoft: Microsoft is expert in making major business out of mediocre technology. This is one thing when all you're doing is pushing virtual papers around on a virtual desktop. It's quite another thing when you're talking about an extremely well financed bid to take over the technical prowess of an entire country.
Linus Torvalds (the father of Linux) nailed it some years ago when he said of Bill Gates, "I can't teach him anything about business and he can't teach me anything about technology."
That was not pee, that was just misclassified milk. A trivial error, one which we in Redmond expect to be fixed any decade, now.
Fanuc really needs some competition.
"Fanuc really needs some competition."
I thought that GE and Fanuc were linked corporately... GE bought out Fanuc?
Cincy Millicron / Vickers / Honewell used to have a PC-based controller that ran on WinNT...
Haha... Did your robot get sick with a virus?
Making the Paper Clip a real device, one critical update at a time.
What the industry needs is a set of standards, combined with some inexpensive general purpose robots, with an open architecture and easy programming. That's what really launched the PC market. And that happened before the rise of Microsoft.
Since nobody else has done this, Microsoft's entry is welcomed. But Microsoft does have a history of anti-competitive actions, so we'll see.
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