Microsoft Bets on Robotics

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For many, robots remain a far-off phenomenon. They're the stuff of 1950s B movies, those octopus-like monsters that manufacture automobiles and other heavy machinery. Or they're clunky, impractical kids' toys that break down after moments of use. Software maker Microsoft wants to change all that.

On June 20, the company unveiled the Microsoft Robotics Studio, software that's designed to make it easier to program robots. Available in a beta testing phase as a free download, the platform lets programmers communicate with robots through Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows operating system and is meant to cut down on some of the more cumbersome aspects of robot design.

Currently, programmers often have to deal with a robot's many and varied interdependent parts—often at the same time. With the new tools, programmers will be able to concentrate on a robot's individual aspects, says Tandy Trower, general manager of the nine-person Microsoft Robotics Group. The tools are akin to the task list on the Windows operating system that lets a robot "restore itself without having to reboot the whole robot," Trower says. The platform also includes a physics simulator to see how a robot will move, so first tests aren't on fragile machinery.


 Trower says robotics, as an industry, is "fragmented," much like personal computing some 30 years ago. Many robots require the use of their own programming interfaces, presenting an obstacle to scientists building on each other's work. Through the new application, Trower says, a user can program a robot kit, like one soon to be released by Lego, and later apply the same skills to increasingly complex machines. Even so, the platform isn't for everyone. At this point, the user must know one of the programming languages compatible with the studio. These include languages like Jscript, those available in Microsoft Visual Studio, such as Visual C#, and some from third parties.

Trower concedes the market is small and that the company's investment in robotics pales in comparison with what it devotes to core product areas. Still, he says Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates "took a personal interest" in the project. The company isn't anticipating much of a return for at least three to five years, Trower says. He declines to give an exact figure for how much Microsoft has invested in the tools.

Which leaves open the question of whether robots are a wise bet. Trower says some new appliances, like washing machines, might already be called robots because of their sensory equipment. But the automatons more commonly recognized as robots remain much rarer. "It's very difficult to define what a robot is," says Trower. He emphasizes the potential uses of the robot studio as an educational tool and aid to robotics programmers. And he expects the robot presence to increase in areas like medicine, defense, and consumer use.


  Two companies say Microsoft's foray into robotics lends credibility to the industry. Both also say they can manage without the giant's assistance. Helen Greiner, chairman of iRobot (IRBT) says the Microsoft platform fills an "educational niche." iRobot, on the other hand, makes "practical robots for the real world," she says. She adds that iRobot doesn't have plans to incorporate the Microsoft platform. "Our robots already have software that's very effective at getting the job done," she says. The company develops robots used for military operations and household chores like vacuuming.

Bob Christopher is the CEO of Ugobe, which expects to release a robotic dinosaur later this year. He says the company is in talks with Microsoft about a potential partnership involving education. Nonetheless, he draws a distinction between the partnership and Ugobe's core business. Ugobe's robot, called Pleo, aims to replicate animal motion and display what Christopher describes as lifelike feelings. "We're doing things that Microsoft or anyone else would have a very hard time doing," Christopher says.

Other robot experts are more enthusiastic. Sebastian Thrun, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, has had the opportunity to play with the studio and says it could be "incredibly useful."


  The team leader on Stanley, a robot car that won the prestigious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency off-road race in 2005, Thrun says he normally works with open source Linux software but "my take is that if the right interface is there you don't need open source." Thrun says he might use the studio to better adapt sensors to robotics. For example, creating a program for a Web cam to provide data for a moving robot. The studio "would make it much easier for me to write software that can access the image stream from such sensors," he wrote in an e-mail. It's just such ease of use that Microsoft is banking on.

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