SAN JOSE, Calif. Microsoft Corp. rolled out Tuesday (Dec. 12) a commercial version of its Robotic Studio, an application development environment it hopes will act as a catalyst for growing activity in robotics. The software giant aims in 2007 to port the new environment from Windows XP to CE, develop a handful of utility applications and even may create a hardware design guide for robots similar to the design guides Microsoft writes for PCs.
The software has been available in beta versions as a free download since June. It will continue to be free for students, academics and researchers, but a commercial version will now be available for a $399 license.
The general manager of Microsoft's initiative said robotics is in a similar hobbyist state today as the PC was in the 1970s. Tandy Trower, who helped launch the first versions of Windows, said Microsoft hopes it can spawn a host of applications for robots as it did for PCs.
"In the 1970's people asked what you would do with a PC, but nobody asks that today," said Trower. "In the end, it was the diversity of applications that made the PC break open," he added.
Robotics Studio 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 32-bit processors used in robotics today. That's because 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 robots. Instead they interact with robots via one of many communications protocols defined by the robots.
Robotic Studio also offers a simulation environment that creates realistic 3D worlds with gravity and fraction thanks to a third-party physics engine from Aegia Technologies Inc.
Chief among its many tools, Robotic Studio sports a visual programming language that lets unsophisticated programmers quickly create command programs by dropping and dragging icons. The Microsoft environment also includes more than 30 tutorials, many with source code for implementing features like supporting basic text-to-speech or a camera.
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 makers about what would be the ideal hardware platform for a robot in terms of the best sensors, motors, camera, microphone, etc.
"We think it would be appropriate for us to pool information for the community," Trower said. "It's mostly just an open dialog there's no formal initiative at this stage," he added.
"I have my own ideas of what I think needs to be in a baseline home robot—a simple motor, sensing system for distance and objects, a camera is a very valuable asset for communications and navigation," he said.
Nevertheless, Trower is not convinced robotics will follow the PC model where a de factor hardware standard was set by one large company, IBM Corp. Robots could just as easily take on a model similar to cellphones where a variety of companies make handsets based on a variety of different silicon and software platforms, Trower said.