Software pundits and tech analysts can be forgiven for overlooking Microsoft's new robotics group. Compared with the company's billion-dollar businesses--Windows, MSN, Xbox, and more--robotics is nonexistent. Microsoft is giving the group's software away for free for noncommercial use. In other ways, robotics is merely minuscule. And indeed, the company is hardly betting the farm on it, having devoted only 11 of its 76 000 employees to creating Robotics Studio 1.0.
Yet this tiny group of elite software engineers, housed in a small set of open offices known as the ”Broom Closet,” handpicked by a 26-year company veteran who has the ear of Bill Gates, and tucked into a tiny corner of the company's research budget, has put together a set of tools that may bring robot manufacturers under one roof, the way Windows did for most PC makers. Indeed, future versions may someday find their way into more machines than Windows did--and be just as lucrative. Microsoft's eventual plan is to charge users US $399 to license up to 200 copies of the software components that go into a commercial robot.
Right now, the robotics world is rife with devices that don't easily work together or with standard programming tools. Take the Create, a generalized, programmable version of the popular Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot. The Roomba's maker, iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass., stripped out the vacuuming-specific parts and put in a cargo bay, a serial cable, 32 different sensors, and a 25-pin expansion port. At $130, it's a budding roboticist's dream. But to program it, you have to write in C or C++. If you want to add a webcam or a robotic arm from another manufacturer, you have to write more code--first for the accessory and then for integrating it into the robot. If you later swap out the new unit for a better one from a different vendor, you have to invent that wheel all over again.
Good robotics programming is far harder than writing a typical application for personal computers. Each component is expected to act autonomously and react to complicated events in the world of a kind that a printer or mouse never has to deal with.
Robotics Studio, released in December, aims to handle much of that complexity for robot programmers. It isn't an operating system. But manufacturers will use it to write software for their robotic components much as a maker of a device that hooks up to a PC does, whether it's a printer, an LCD display, or a data-acquisition sensor. Once such a service is written--telling, for example, a robotic arm to move up or down, grip or release, rotate n degrees, and so on--the action can be done with a single instruction. And when you substitute a new arm, the same commands work in the same way, so a minimum of reprogramming is needed. Microsoft's software, in other words, will do what MS-DOS and then Windows did: nurture an ecosystem in which new devices spawn new programs for more and more end users who in turn inspire yet more innovation--the same virtuous cycle that brought explosive growth to the cottage PC industry 25 years ago.
Whether that cycle will develop remains to be seen, but there are signs it may have already begun. The tool kit has been downloaded more than 100 000 times since its December release. An enhanced version, previewed in April, will be used this fall in computer-science and engineering classes at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and other schools. And it's already being tested by a variety of manufacturers, from makers of the tiny iRobot units to Kuka Robot Group, in Augsburg, Germany, which in May released the first robot able to lift 1000 kilograms. Even though the software is free for many, managers at Microsoft say they're confident that once it's in millions of machines, moneymaking businesses will emerge. The company's free media player, for example, was the seed from which its Internet-based television software--with customers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications--sprouted.
Today's $11 billion robot sector--mostly industrial robots--will double by 2010, according to estimates by the Japan Robot Association, and it should exceed $66 billion by 2025. Most of the growth will be in nonindustrial applications--especially, analysts say, in areas such as toys, transportation, and health and senior care. Imagine a robot helping a recovering heart-attack patient get some exercise by walking her down a hospital corridor, carrying her intravenous medicine bag, monitoring her heartbeat and other vital signs, and supporting her weight if she weakens.
The International Federation of Robotics predicts that 5.6 million robots for domestic, entertainment, and leisure applications will be sold from 2006 to 2009, and right now the field is wide open. Microsoft's competitors include Player, an open-source project partially funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, DARPA, and various artificial intelligence labs; Gostai, in Paris, a small maker of open-source robotics software; and Evolution Robotics, based in Pasadena, Calif., and Tokyo. None has anything near the vast resources of a Microsoft. It's no wonder the 10 people who wrote Robotics Studio 1.0 say they believe they're the pioneers of the next big thing, not just for their company, but for the world.