Microsoft enters robotics race

Company offers toolkit to help developers design intelligent applications for commercial and home-built robots. Microsoft tool envisions evolution of robots

Imagine a world with Windows-powered robots that can perform house chores, schedule appointments or walk the dog.

It may turn into a reality now that Microsoft has ventured into robotics, a field long relegated to science fiction, but which increasingly has come to life in recent years.

Microsoft said Tuesday it launched a new research group and the company's first-ever robotics software, available for public preview via download. The technology, called Microsoft Robotics Studio, is a Windows-based toolkit designed so that commercial and individual developers can create intelligent applications for a range of products.

Microsoft Robotics Studio

"We hope to put in place the basic plumbing layer to help people get started (creating) robotics applications, and allow third parties to bring their hardware and software to share with everyone," said Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group.

Microsoft is also funding a new research lab, called the Center for Innovative Robotics, at Carnegie Mellon University, a pioneer in robotics research. Funds allotted to the CMU lab and its own research group were not disclosed.

With Microsoft's heft and money, the field of robotics will likely gain visibility, experts say. Long only a sci-fi fantasy, robotics has made headway in recent years through outfits like iRobot, a commercial maker of military robots and smart floor-cleaners. But some forays into robotics by major corporations such as Intel have petered out.

In academia, there has been considerable progress. CMU, for example, has developed artificial-intelligence technology to advance manufacturing and mining. Last fall, Stanford University won a first-ever DARPA race for its unmanned vehicle, which crossed 131 miles in the Mojave Desert in just more than six hours.

"The robotics industry is a lot like the PC industry in the late '70s; it's difficult to know what key applications will open up the area," Trower said.

Still, he highlighted some possibilities, such as "remote presence," or smart products that can alert the elderly to take medication at the prescribed time, for example.

Bill Gates alluded to Microsoft's entry into robotics last week, during his announcement that he would phase out his day-to-day involvement at the company he founded.

Gates said during a news conference, "We have an incubation group under Research that's working on robotics. We're not going to get anything out of that right away, but that's this neat new area."

Microsoft also has several academic and commercial partners that plan to support its software. Those include CMU, Lego, CoroWare, KUKA Robot Group, Robosoft and MobileRobots. The company plans to unveil the software preview at the RoboBusiness Conference and Exposition 2006, in Pittsburgh.

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