Microsoft commercializes robot software

Microsoft Corp. released the commercial version of its software for robots on Wednesday, hoping to shape the market much as it did for PC software a few decades ago.

Its Robotics Studio includes programming tools intended to make it easier to write robot applications, and a runtime environment that allows them to be used and reused on different types of hardware.

The software is free for hobbyists and academic use; companies that want to use it commercially must buy a license, which starts at US$399. The software is for programming all types of robots, according to Microsoft, from toys all the way up to industrial equipment.

The company sees the robot market as being in a similar state as the PC market in the late 1970s. The hardware for building robots, including processors and storage, has become relatively cheap, but the industry lacks accessible programming tools and a common software platform that allows applications to be reused.

Windows helped solve this for PCs, providing a common platform and tools on which the industry could focus its efforts. Microsoft hopes to do something similar with Robotics Studio — although it remains to be seen if its PC expertise will translate into the world of robots.

Robotics Studio 1.0 includes a programming environment that supports the languages in Microsoft’s Visual Studio toolset, including Visual Basic, as well as drag-and-drop tools for beginners. The software has a simulation environment so developers can visualize their robots before they build them, using a processing engine licensed from Ageia Technologies Inc. It also includes some sample code and tutorials.

The run-time environment supports applications written for robots with 8-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit processors, including multicore chips. The applications can run on the robot itself or on a PC.

Microsoft lined up about 30 partners to support its efforts. Among them, Robotics Studio is compatible with Lego Group’s popular Mindstorms robot kit and iRobot Corp.’s Roomba interface.

About a million “personal robots” will be sold worldwide this year, Microsoft said, citing figures from the International Federation of Robots. The number is small compared to the PC market, but the company expects it to grow quickly in the next few years.

The Microsoft robotics developers’ site contains more information, including a link to download Robotics Studio. The software runs on Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2. Users also need Internet Explorer 5.01 or later.

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