If a century of movies has taught us anything, it’s that humanity will one day be enslaved by sadistic robot masters with death rays. Doing its part to make this glorious vision a reality, Microsoft today announces a development platform designed to make robot programming easy (well, easier). The Microsoft Robotics Studio provides a visual development environment for crafting the control code for your metal doppelgänger, which in no time flat will be scooting across the floor, bumping into chairs and household pets, and generally causing your Significant Other to ask why you can’t be more like normal people.
Robotics Studio allows robot builders to code in the language of their choice (VB.Net, C#, Jscript, and Iron Python are supported, among others), and has a special focus on building Web- and Windows-based interfaces for controlling and monitoring your new creation. The software suite also includes a simulator that will allow you to test your bot before turning it loose in the real world. To ensure that the simulator is accurate, Microsoft licensed Ageia’s PhysX engine (which will also benefit from having the company’s physics accelerator card in your machine). Though still in beta, the software is available now as a Community Technology Preview.
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Microsoft’s push into robotics is an attempt to provide programming and simulation tools to a community that has often lacked them. Though sophisticated sensors and servos are now inexpensive and easy to obtain, it remains inordinately difficult to develop the code and the interfaces for such machines—a situation that Microsoft likens to the early days of the PC. Tandy Trower, the general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group, says:
“The evolution of robot applications is held back by many factors, including the fragmentation of hardware, lack of portability of code, lack of good development tools, and lack of needed support libraries and algorithms. Just putting the basic foundation in place so applications can be written takes too much effort and requires too much expertise. Therefore, like the early PC industry, the robotics business is impaired [by] the overhead required.
Making robotics simpler is not something that Microsoft can accomplish without support from the major hardware vendors, so the company has partnered with a whole host of firms, including CoroWare, KUKA Robot Group, Robosoft, RoboticsConnection, White Box Robotics, fischertechnik, Parallax—and LEGO. That’s right; everyone’s favorite builder of plastic blocks is also a leading maker of robots for hobbyists. The LEGO Mindstorms system hasn’t had an update for a while, but this fall will see the release of Mindstorms NXT, a big leap forward for the technology (see Wired’s feature on the new system for more information).
While robotics may never become as big as the PC market, Microsoft’s move could help to secure Windows as the dominant operating system for building robotic applications (the system is not targeted just at hobbyists, of course; many of the tools are designed more for use by academics and commercial robot designers). It could also help turn a new generation of robot enthusiasts on to the pleasures of building and programming their own bots, much as playing Origin’s 1989 Omega tank combat game on an Apple IIGS did for me back in the day.