Robotics Poised for Revolution (Again)

Simulated iRobot Creates grapple in a simulated sumo match.

Anyone willing to download some software can now get in on the ground floor of the upcoming robotics revolution—assuming there’s going to be one.

“Unfortunately, robotics was forecast to take off 20 years ago,” cautioned Joe Pinto, robotics industry observer and angel investor who backs startup companies. “Will it take off this time? Who knows?”

But Pinto said the only company in the world in a position to give the industry the boost it needs is trying to do so: Microsoft has posted its Microsoft Robotics Studio (MRS) online where anyone willing to undertake a 54-megabyte download can have it free of charge. The latest version, posted this month, is 1.5. The beta version appeared last June and version 1.0 was posted in December.

Industry standard?

MRS may ultimately serve to standardize a fragmented industry , Pinto said. Currently, software written for a specific robot cannot run on any other robot, but if MRS is widely adopted a third-party robotics software market could emerge.

“We don’t know where things are going to go, but we have the early PC market as a model,” Pinto told LiveScience. In the early 1980s, every microcomputer had its own software, but then the PCs standardized on Microsoft DOS software. Third parties began writing software for the DOS market, and when DOS-based spreadsheets became the rage the market took off, he explained.

“Microsoft’s dream is that the robot market will explode like the PC market did, that people will jump on it and do the DOS thing,” Pinto said. “But it will not be as easy.” Robots need brains (the software), brawn (the motors) and bone (the linkages), Pinto said, yet MRS only standardizes the brains. The vacuum factor

Still, the first hint of the fruits of standardization can be found in MRS 1.5, since it includes support for the Create system from iRobot Corp. Famous for its Roomba robot floor vacuum cleaner and various military and bomb disposal robots, iRobot brought out Create in January for the tinkerer market by removing the vacuum cleaner from a Roomba while adding a programmable command module with additional interfaces. The full-up development package, with battery and charger, costs about $300.

You don’t, however, need a Create to get started, as MRS includes a simulation environment, with a simulated Create (plus other machines and assemblages).

As for what you can do with it, you can teach it to push other Creates out of a ring (MRS has a downloadable module for this purpose) and then enter it in the Robot Sumo competition at the Microsoft Mobile & Embedded DevCon (MEDC) 2007, held in Las Vegas April 30 through May 3.

If you’re more ambitious, there’s the Robocup 2007, to be held July 1-10 at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, with Microsoft as one of the sponsors. Spokesperson Vivian Chandler said the annual event is expected to draw 2,500 people this year from around the world, competing in multiple robotic soccer leagues with robots of various sizes, both real and simulated. There’s also an event for search-and-rescue robots, competition for students, and for domestic robots.