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Microsoft's new gig: Virtual host to robotics competitions

The software maker also expects to unveil a preview of its newest robotics developer platform. Will the company be at the center of a coming age of consumer bots?

Aldebaran Robotics
Aldebaran Robotics, maker of the humanoid robot Nao, has joined Microsoft's partner program and will support Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 2008.
Aldebaran Robotics

Microsoft plans to host a series of virtual competitions for robot creators to generate excitement for the nascent robotics industry and its newest developer software.

On Tuesday, Microsoft is expected to unveil the third version of its robotics software in less than three years, a new robotics industry partner, and a series of simulation contests called RoboChamps.

The creation of the competitions, which will be announced at the RoboBusiness conference in Pittsburgh, shows that Microsoft plans to be at the center of any growing consumer robotics industry by providing the underlying software for developers.

"Traditionally, robotics has been in the industrial space. But investors are looking at (consumer) robotics more seriously now," Tandy Trowers, general manager of Microsoft's Robotics Group, said in an interview. "This news is some indication that we're significantly invested in this area."

Trowers did not provide a number for the company's financial commitment to robotics so far, but he runs a team of about 12 people at Microsoft. He did say the company will double its investment in the group in the next year.

The announcement comes as more parties are throwing their hat in the robotics ring. Similar to Microsoft, robotics start-up Willow Garage is hoping to attract developers to work with its coming open-source platform for robotic humanoids or cars, for example. That company was founded and backed by early Google architect Scott Hassan.

True to itself, Microsoft has built a Windows-based software platform designed to make it relatively simple to program robots--real or simulated. Compatible with several different pieces of hardware, like iRobot's Roomba or the Lego Mindstorms NXT "tribot," the software lets enterprising gadget hounds program a device to communicate, send alerts, or perform scheduled tasks.

(The software is free for hobbyists or researchers, but companies aiming to profit from its use must license a commercial version for $399.)

Robot Nao
Project Nao began in 2005. Aldebaran says the first units will be for sale to universities and labs this year, with availability to the public by the end of 2008. Aldebaran Robotics

The newest version of the software, released in preview form Wednesday, is designed to be two to three times faster when it comes to the communications between separate robotic components, such as sensors or actuators (for example, a wheel).

The new version also enables developers to run the software using alternative communication transports (other than TCIP). Another new feature lets users load a data file of a floor plan into the program so that they can simulate movement within a virtual building, for example.

Finally, Microsoft updated the software's name to add the word "developer" so that the audience can't mistake its function, according to Trowers. It's now called Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 2008.

In a separate announcement, Trowers said Aldebaran Robotics, maker of the upcoming humanoid robot Nao, has joined its partner program. That means that Nao will support Studio software so developers can tailor the bots' functions. So far, Microsoft has about 50 partners, and roughly 200,000 developers have downloaded its software.

But with new virtual games, the company could attract many more hobbyists and future entrepreneurs.

RoboChamps, will expose more people to the software because the series was built atop Studio 2008. The first contest, a virtual maze, will be launched April 21. Microsoft plans to run a new contest every two months thereafter.

Contests later in the year will involve a Mars rover mission and a self-driving car charged with navigating city streets, similar to the real-world DARPA Urban Grand Challenge. And yet another will involve a search-and-rescue mission.

Trowers said Microsoft will award prizes like Lego robots or iRobot's Roomba.

"This is about making robots available to people," Trowers said. "It's much more fun to learn by competing rather than solving a dry problem."