Microsoft voltage to charge up robotics industry
Seattle Times technology reporter
They roam around the couches and cubicles in an open room at Microsoft.
A robot with arms and legs that can do gymnastics, the Roomba self-guided vacuum, a lightweight Lego robot for hobbyists, and a squat $40,000 rover equipped with sensors used in the surveying industry.
All of these and more can be controlled using the same robotics software Microsoft is launching today.
It represents a new effort for the company that has Chairman Bill Gates raving about potential growth in a robotics industry that's already worth an estimated $11 billion a year or more.
"[A]s I look at the trends that are now starting to converge, I can envision a future in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives," Gates writes in the January issue of Scientific American.
Microsoft is not making robots. Its Robotics Studio is software designed to program the devices to collect data from an array of sensors and perform all manner of functions.
It includes a simulation program so that even if you don't have a $4,000 Pioneer P3DX robot, you can still program one then set it to work in an on-screen simulator complete with properties such as friction and gravity.
The software, free for hobbyists, students and others pursuing robotics for non-commercial purposes, also has a host of tutorials, robot models and technology services for use by even programming novices.
It can be downloaded from msdn.microsoft.com/robotics.
Microsoft is charging $399 for a license to use the software commercially.
Tandy Trower, head of the Microsoft Robotics Group, said Microsoft Robotics Studio offers the industry something it has been lacking: a common programming platform to write applications that will work on all different kinds of robots.
The absence of such a platform has been a drag on the industry's growth, Trower said.
"It kind of slows down evolution and the progression of the industry, because now if you want to take a program from one of these robots to another, you have to relearn everything," he said.
In that respect, the industry resembles the personal computer industry in the mid- to late-1970s, said Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends, a market-research and consulting firm that also hosts industry events, including the one at which Microsoft announced its plans for robotics in June.
The announcement "was a wakeup notice" to others in the industry, Kara said.
Robotics today is benefiting from cheaper computing power and standards set by the PC industry, Kara said. Robot makers don't have to reinvent things like wireless connectivity, Web cams and microprocessors.
Another difference: The PC industry's early days were characterized by "home-brew" clubs and small startup companies.
But major players, such as Microsoft and a host of industrial giants, are putting big money and talent behind robotics, Kara said.
The story of how Microsoft decided to build robotics software starts with Trower, whose 25 years with the company have taken him from managing the Microsoft BASIC programming language to the "Flight Simulator" program to the first and second versions of Windows.
About 2 ½ years ago, he was a member of Gates' strategic team.
Trower had heard from people in robotics who wanted Microsoft to apply its programming might to the problems they faced. At the same time, Gates had been visiting university computer-science departments, nearly all of which showed off their latest robotics projects.
Gates sent Trower out to research the industry's needs and come up with a proposal for how the company could get involved.
Trower later consulted with Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, who is assuming some of Gates' roles as part of the company's leadership transition.
Rick Rashid, the executive in charge of Microsoft Research, was also involved.
The men gave Trower the green light to assemble a small team and build a prototype.
The group became part of the Microsoft Research organization, rather than part of one of the company's three large divisions where most product groups are housed.
That's so the robotics group can take advantage of links to the academic community and cutting-edge company technologies. It also is insulated, for the time being, from concerns about return on investment, Trower said.
But Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has told Trower that some day, "he'll come knocking on my door and say where is the revenue for this."
According to figures from the Japan Robotics Association, there's plenty of potential for sales.
The global robotics market was worth about $11 billion in 2005. It's projected to more than double by 2010 to $24.9 billion.
For now, the robotics group is an 11-person team of veteran developers selected by Trower from around Microsoft.
They all have product experience, including two who worked on the original Xbox video-game console, and hail from Russia, Denmark, Greece, Sri Lanka — almost as many countries as there are workers.
They work in an open space with couches and lots of room for the robots to roll around in. That's in stark contrast to the mazelike hallways of small offices that characterize other Microsoft buildings.
Trower likens the group to "a startup inside of Microsoft" and calls their space a "garage shop."
"We're one of the many ways that Microsoft does create innovative things," Trower said.
Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published December 13, 2006, was corrected December 18, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the price of a Pioneer P3DX robot at a Microsoft laboratory. The base price of the robot is about $4,000, and the configuration in use at Microsoft cost the company about $19,000.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company