Lego robots march on Microsoft

Toy maker takes programmable robotics system on whistle-stop tour of tech companies, institutions.

REDMOND, Wash.--Steve Hassenplug must not sleep very much.

The Lafayette, Ind., software engineer is a member of the Lego Mindstorms NXT developer program, and even among the hard-core Lego fanatics on that team, Hassenplug is known for never letting time stand in the way of invention.

On Monday, Hassenplug arrived at the "Big Robot on Campus" event here at Microsoft's headquarters with a three-wheeled, Bluetooth-enabled midget of a remote-controlled robot named "Omni." The little robot, which Hassenplug had built the day before, scuttled about the floor of a large conference room during Microsoft's corporate briefing, bobbing and weaving around feet and furniture.

Legos tour

Lego's robot programmers are barnstorming the United States as they show off the latest iteration of the company's programmable robot technology. And Microsoft, which wants to show how software from its own Robotics Studio can be easily integrated into other systems, was happy to play host Monday.

Even a software giant, it seems, has a soft spot for Legos.

"Lego was one of the motivating factors that got this started in the first place," said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics initiative, which launched in June. He explained how Lego had told Microsoft about its Mindstorms NXT plans several years ago, even as Trower was beginning to formulate what his group would be like.

Now Microsoft is hoping its robotics suite, which can help people design anything from simple robots to industrial projects, will be seen as an innovative step to getting more people interested in robots. He likens the state of robotics today to that of the early days of PCs. If that means being creative, Hassenplug is in agreement.

"It should reach all through the room," Hassenplug said when asked what kind of range he had for controlling Omni. And indeed, with a few flicks of the custom controller, Omni slalomed its way through dozens of shoes to the back of the room.

Lego is showcasing how its open-source Mindstorms NXT programming environment can be integrated with other technologies and software. The Mindstorms NXT program is based around an infinitely programmable "brick" that can be incorporated into any combination of the iconic Lego plastic pieces to make robots ranging from very basic to fairly complex. And for the first time in eight years, the program is getting a major update.

One of the main attractions to Mindstorms NXT users is that NXT is Bluetooth-friendly, giving someone the ability to wirelessly send a custom robot in just about any direction. That's what Hassenplug did with Omni on Monday at Microsoft.

But perhaps even more impressive was watching Brian Cross, a software developer in Microsoft's Windows Mobile division, show off how he had incorporated multiple wireless protocols in his Mindstorms NXT model.

His robot, known as WiMo, was essentially a Windows Mobile-enabled cell phone strapped to a small mobile robot. Its movement was controlled wirelessly from a PC, which sent instructions to the phone via Wi-Fi. The phone relayed the motion commands to the robot via Bluetooth.

"I'm ready," a tinny, robotic voice from the cell phone said as Cross prepared to start his demonstration. "Hi, my name is WiMo. I'm ready to play."

Cross' robot wasn't the only Microsoft contribution at the event Monday.

The Microsoft contingent brought several robots and rigged the system so they could be controlled from an Internet Explorer browser dashboard.

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