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Robotics Studio expected to spawn various apps

Posted: 01 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Microsoft? software? visual programming language? programming language? programming?

Microsoft Corp. believes hobbyists' interest in commercial robotics today is similar to their enthusiasm for PCs in the 1970s. The company rolled out a commercial version of its Robotics Studio application development environment in December, hoping it would be a catalyst for activity in robotics.

The software has been available in beta versions as a free download since June. It will remain free for students, academics and researchers, but a commercial version will be offered for a $399 license. Microsoft hopes Robotics Studio will spawn a host of applications, said Tandy Trower, general manager of the robotics group.

"In the 1970s, people asked what you would do with a PC," said Trower. "If you asked Bill Gates back then what would be the application that would break the PC wide open, he would not have known. In the end, it was the diversity of applications that made the PC break open."

The software giant aims to port the new environment from Windows XP to CE, develop a handful of utility applications and possibly create a hardware design guide for robots similar to the design guides Microsoft writes for PCs.

Robotics Studio has garnered praise from early users such as Tucker Balch, an associate professor at the Institute for Personal Robotics in Education (IPRE) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The IPRE was an early partner of Microsoft in using the environment. "Microsoft has really filled a hole. There are a lot of tools for people with PhDs in robotics, but nothing for the average person who wants to dabble," Balch said. Microsoft is "trying to get people to adopt it so that the environment can become the OS for tomorrow's robots."

Trower: Hobbyists are encouraged to take Robotic Studio for a spin.

The Robotics Studio application development environment includes a runtime program, a simulator and a visual programming language as well as a collection of tools. The runtime environment works across a wide variety of 8-, 16- and 32bit processors used in robotics today. The software is focused on letting users write simple modular command programs that act like services. The programs typically do not run on the limited processor and memory of the target robotsthey instead interact with robots via one of many communications protocols defined by the robots.

For example, iRobot Corp.'s Roomba vacuum cleanerone of the most popular consumer robots, with sales of over 1 million unitsuses a simple 16bit processor from Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and has no user-accessible memory. It does, however, offer a serial interface protocol for commanding the robot via a Bluetooth link with a PC.

Robotics Studio also offers a simulation environment that creates realistic 3D worlds, thanks to a third-party physics engine from Aegia Technologies Inc. "This lets developers test out an application without risking that their robot might fall down a flight of stairs," said Trower.

Chief among its many tools, Robotics Studio sports a visual programming language that lets unsophisticated programmers quickly create command programs by dropping and dragging icons. For example, the program lets users associate the icon of a robot with a videogame console's joystick so that the joystick can be used to control the robot's movements.

The Microsoft environment includes more than 30 tutorials, many with source code for implementing features like basic text-to-speech or a camera.

The environment runs on Windows XP and Vista, but Trower's group plans to port it to Windows CE this year. Some robotics programs use CE as a native OS, he said.

Microsoft also hopes to write a handful of small applications to be included in the package. Trower compared these to the simple notepad word processor and calculator app the company wrote for the early versions of Windows so users could see what the OS could do.

Controversial idea
Probably the most interesting and controversial of the group's ideas is an informal effort to compile a hardware guide for a robot reference platform in 2007. The work would be an outgrowth of discussions Trower and others are now having with robot hardware manufacturers about the ideal hardware platform for a robot in terms of the best sensors, motors, camera, microphone and so on. "We think it would be appropriate for us to pool information for the community," Trower said. "It's mostly just an open dialogue. There's no formal initiative at this stage."

Nevertheless, Trower is not convinced that robotics will follow the PC model, where a de facto hardware standard was set by one large company, IBM Corp. Robots could just as easily take on a model similar to cellphones, where many companies make handsets based on a variety of silicon and software platforms, he said.

Trower is encouraged by the increasing sophistication of robotics hardware. "One reason robotics is taking off is the fast transition to 32bit processors," he said. For example, educational robotics game Lego Mindstorms "already has a 32bit version available," whereas eight years ago, it was "only 8bit."

Nevertheless, there are no standard hardware reference models. At one time, for instance, the RoboCup soccer competition used the Sony Aibo robotic dog as its platform. But now that Sony has killed the relatively expensive pet robot, organizers are still looking for another platform. Robot developers have long said the industry needs inexpensive sensors, cameras and other gear to lower the cost and raise the functionality of robots.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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