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Microsoft Upgrades Robotics Tools

Microsoft’s Robotics Developer Studio 2008 comes with increased runtime performance and improved tooling.

Microsoft's push into robotics had its moment of fame back in June when Chairman Bill Gates demonstrated the "Ballmer-Bot" at Tech-Ed North America 2008 Developers. Looking to push its robotics ambitions forward, the company last month launched a new iteration of its tooling platform for developers looking to build robots.

The company's Robotics Developer Studio (RDS) 2008 comes with a simple programming model for building asynchronous apps, visual authoring tools, some simulation software and a bundle of tutorials and sample code. Microsoft launched RDS 2008 at the RoboDevelopment Conference and Expo in Santa Clara, Calif.

Many Improvements
The new release comes with increased run-time performance that the company says is up to three times faster. It also comes with an improved Visual Programming Language (VPL) tool, which is a drag-and-drop authoring instrument. Microsoft has also improved the Visual Simulation Environment (VSE) tool. With the VSE tool, the company says simulations can now be recorded and played back, allowing developers to catch errors before the software gets to the hardware. The new RDS release supports Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and Visual Studio 2008, as well as VPL and the VSE on 64-bit Windows platforms.

One of the key improvements is a set of capabilities that lets developers define where they want the processing to take place, says Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's Robotics Group. "For robotics, the benefits are in the distributed scenarios where the application runs partially on the robot and partially on other PCs-or servers-that the robot is connected to," Trower says.

Distributed scenarios enable virtually unlimited storage and processing to be applied to the robot, Trower adds. The VSE is likely to have the most direct impact on the process of developing software for robotic environments. "Simulation-and not just ours-has always demonstrated its value in terms of making development more efficient," he says. "It allows developers to try out a design more efficiently and with no risk. Simulation means that you can develop software for a robot without requiring the actual hardware and debug it before you build it."

Robotics for All
The toolset includes three new simulated environments-"urban," "outdoor" and "apartment"-that provide virtual worlds in which developers can test robots before anything is built. Within the simulation feature set is a new floor-plan editor aimed at students and hobbyists, which makes it easier to design a simple interior environment without having to buy or learn sophisticated 3-D modeling tools. The VSE's support for Collaborative Design Activity (COLLADA)-a standard for establishing an interchange file format for interactive 3-D applications-is aimed at experienced engineers, Trower says. "Our toolkit is really intended to support the entire community," he adds.

In fact, robot hobbyists can download an Express Edition of the developer tools for free. There's also an Academic Edition distributed through the Microsoft Developers Network Academic Alliance. The Standard Edition sells for around $500.

Trower points to the decision by power and automation products provider Asea Brown Boveri Ltd. (ABB) to provide university students with access to the programming tools for their industrial robots. "ABB's motivation is to see what creativity this unleashes by students for their robots," he explains. The list of RDS users also includes NASA, which used the VSE to simulate environments for the Mars Rover.

Future Capabilities
Microsoft expects to provide future versions of RDS with the infrastructure to support autonomous navigation, remote communication and basic user interaction, Trower says. He also expects future versions of the toolkit to allow robotics software developers to connect with the cloud to take advantage of offline storage, communication and information.

Currently, most of the world's robots are isolated from humans, performing a range of industrial tasks in factories, manufacturing plants and pharmaceutical facilities. But a veritable race of domestic, multipurpose robots designed to be integrated into homes, provide assistance to the elderly and just generally interact with humans is right around the corner, Trower believes.

"As the GUI did in the mid-1980s, human-robotic interaction will drive a revolution in how we interact with PC technology," Trower adds. "The next steps are to look beyond the base platform and offer not just libraries, but the infrastructure necessary to support the applications to come that will transform robots into pervasive products."
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