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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.

And that's how, suddenly, three robots on a table all began moving simultaneously--though it seemed they could only go backward, and they began to get dangerously close to the edge of the table.

"I think someone needs to file a bug report on this," yelled an audience member.

But George Chrysanthakopoulos, a software architect at the Microsoft Robotics Studio, wasn't fazed. He kept on running his demonstration, including an explanation of the studio's Robotics Simulation Visualizer software, which lets users mock up Lego robots in a purely digital environment based on real physics. Chrysanthakopoulos directed one of the virtual robots to back into a large white block. The block toppled into another like dominoes.

The point, said Chrysanthakopoulos, is that Microsoft has created robotics software that can be integrated with the Mindstorms NXT system, despite the fact that Lego Mindstorms NXT will ship on its Aug. 1 launch date with software from National Instruments.

And that's exactly how it's meant to be, said Michael McNally, director of brand relations for Lego Mindstorms.

"We invited a small group of people to help us develop," McNally said at the tour's kick-off event at Wired Magazine in San Francisco last week. "Then more to troubleshoot and roll it out to the community...Now that it's a finished deal, we're asking creatives at leading companies to show what they can do."

As the hundreds on hand for the Microsoft stop on the Mindstorms NXT tour watched the various robots being demonstrated, McNally explained Lego's corporate philosophy about the new product.

He said it was only a very short time after the original Mindstorms system went on the market in 1998 that hackers began to work their magic on the rudimentary robots. And while it took some time for Lego to get behind the notion of giving away control, McNally said the company now recognizes that's the only way to go.

"We're not a technology company," he said. "We are 100 percent a toy company. So imagine the internal debates about what do we do with people who are hacking our product...So we decided to let the hackers continue with their activities and show us what the true potential is."

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