Microsoft Shifts Robotics Strategy, Makes Robotics Studio Available Free

Updated May 20, 4:23 p.m.: Added National Instruments comments; 5:49 p.m.: Added Willow Garage comments; May 21, 11:21 a.m.: Added details on competing robotics software platforms; 1:50 p.m. Added Herman Bruyninckx comments.

microsoft robotics developer studio
Microsoft's new and now free release of its Robotics Developer Studio includes new 3-D simulation environments like this multi-level house.

Over the past year or so, Microsoft's robotics group has been working quietly, very quietly. That's because, among other things, they were busy planning a significant strategy shift.

Microsoft is upping the ante on its robotics ambitions by announcing today that its Robotics Developer Studio, or RDS, a big package of programming and simulation tools, is now available to anyone for free.

Previously, RDS had multiple releases: one free but with limited features, a full commercial version that users could purchase, and an academic version distributed only to partners.

By releasing a single version with full capabilities and at no cost, Microsoft wants to expand its RDS user base, hoping to amass a legion of hobbyists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other robot enthusiasts who will come up with the next big things in consumer robotics.

I spoke about the new plan with Stathis Papaefstathiou, who leads the robotics group and is responsible for Microsoft’s robotics strategy and business model.

"We decided to take out all of the barriers that today our users might have in order to help them build these new [robotic] technologies," he told me.

Papaefstathiou (pronounced papa-ef-sta-THI-u) says that price is a big limitation for mass produced robots. "That means that in the consumer space it's not about sophisticated hardware, it's about the software stack."

He says RDS has been downloaded half a million times since it launched in 2007. The company estimates it has about 60,000 active users.

Those are respectable numbers but they didn't help Microsoft fulfill its goal of kick-starting a vast and lucrative robotics development ecosystem -- like MS-DOS and Windows did for the PC.

So over the past two years the robotics group, which is part of of an elite software division called Startup Business Group led by Amit Mital, who reports to Craig Mundie, set about devising a plan to expand Microsoft's stake in robotics.

Not everyone is convinced the new plan makes sense.

"This is all just a non-event," says Herman Bruyninckx, a robotics professor at K.U. Leuven in Belgium and coordinator of EURON, the European Robotics Research Network.

Bruyninckx, an advocate of free and open source software who started OROCOS, or Open Robot Control Software, a framework for robot control, says that making RDS free is not a change in strategy and nobody he knows in the robotics community is "talking about RDS, let alone using or planning to use it."

Papaefstathiou says that in addition to creating a single RDS release, Microsoft is also making the source code of selected program samples and other modules available online, hoping to improve collaboration among users. In particular, the group wants to entice the growing community of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and weekend robot builders.

He also says there will be closer collaboration with other projects at Microsoft. He mentions Project Natal, a motion tracking user interface that Microsoft is creating for the Xbox 360. He says Natal's ability to track gestures could "be available also in solutions where human-robot interaction becomes important."

Will the new strategy work?

microsoft robotics developer studio
A factory model is now part of Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio's simulation environments.

RDS is not a robot operating system -- it's a comprehensive set of development tools, samples, and tutorials. It includes a visual programming interface, a popular 3-D simulator, and also Microsoft's CCR and DSS runtime toolkit.

But despite its broad range of tools, RDS works best with the specific robot platforms it supports, including iRobot's Create, LEGO Mindstorms, CoroWare, Parallax, and others.

These are great robot platforms but by no means the only ones. In fact, many budding roboticists today are using Arduinos and programming ATmega microcontrollers to build innovative robots. Why would they need RDS?

Microsoft has plenty of competition as well. Other robotics software platforms include Urbi by French firm Gostai, ERSP by Evolution Robotics, and the Player/Stage Project.

One platform that is rapidly gaining adoption and has shown impressive results is the Robot Operating System, or ROS, a broad set of open source tools by Silicon Valley robotics firm Willow Garage.

Other users, including a growing number of high school students participating in the popular FIRST robotics competition, use National Instruments' LabVIEW tools and controllers to program their robots.

Papaefstathiou acknowledges that there are alternative software packages that can do some of the things -- visual programming and simulation, for example -- that RDS does, but he insists that "there's no single competitor for the overall toolset that we have."

As for Willow Garage, Papaefstathiou says they're "targeting different platforms and different capabilities," adding that some of the robots they're using are half million dollar systems.

"People are doing a great job in developing robotics technology there, but this is not something that goes into scale," he says. "And we here in Microsoft we are about scale."

Not surprisingly, Willow Garage disagrees.

"We designed ROS to be flexible and open, because researchers and application developers alike need to be able to inspect, improve, and extend the system," says Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage's director of open source development. "As a result, ROS is now used on a wide variety of robots, from inexpensive iRobot Creates to sophisticated humanoids and even autonomous cars. It's only through open source that we can reach this level of adoption and community involvement."

National Instruments, for its part, welcomes Microsoft's move.

"I'm glad to see that National Instruments, Microsoft, Willow Garage and other major players are aligned on a critical missing element to the robotics industry crossing the chasm and really taking off," says Shelley Gretlein, senior group manager of NI's real-time and embedded software. "The key is in the development software. Lowering the software barriers will make it easy to get into robotics."

Microsoft established the robotics group in 2007 under the leadership of Tandy Trower, a software veteran who'd headed some of Microsoft's largest and most successful businesses, eventually becoming a minister-without-portfolio reporting directly to Bill Gates.

Trower and Gates believed the consumer market was the right place for the next biggest innovation in robotics, finding parallels with the beginnings of the PC industry, a view Gates described in a now-famous Scientific American article, "A Robot in Every Home."

But things changed late last year when Trower left Microsoft to start a healthcare robotics company. The company chose Papaefstathiou, an unashamed Trekkie -- "Data is very inspirational" --  with a background in high-performance computing, as the robotics group's new leader. It's up to him now to turn Gates' a-robot-in-very-home vision into reality.

I do see potential for a big expansion of RDS. But my impression is that it will be strongest among schools and universities. Now any engineering school in, say, Brazil, Russia, India or China, could use it and have students programming robots, or at least simulating them.

The question is, Will promising, cool robotics products for the consumer market emerge from a larger RDS community? I asked Papaefstathiou what kinds of commercial robots he envisions would be around.

He wouldn't give me specific examples, preferring to say it was up to "the community to think broader about the scenarios."

"Consumer robotics is a new product category and building [applications] there requires leveraging the capabilities and inspiration of a broader community," he says. "This is exactly what we want to do.”


Microsoft's robotics squad. Left to right: Stathis Papaefstathiou (general manager), Russ Sanchez (creative director), Branch Hendrix (business development), Stewart MacLeod (development), Hunter Hudson (quality), Mukunda Murthy (program management), George Chrysanthakopoulos (distinguished engineer), and Chris Tham (engineering).

Images: Microsoft Robotics Group

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