Let The Robot Do It
The exciting possibilities of Microsoft's Robotics Developer Studio.
Last month I wrote about my recent interview with Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group, who discussed several of the practical, real-world applications of robotics (see my August 2008 Editor's Note, "Applying Robotics to Everyday Scenarios
Reader Robert Stanton commented that "it's all well and good to write about the everyday applications that derive from robotics, but any article about robotics should have more emphasis on, well, robots."
It's hard to argue with this reader's insight. If pressed, I'd be quick to admit to a romance with the idea of robots and what they can accomplish for us. Cool and interesting robots abound in cinema and books: Klaupaucius and Trurl, Robby the Robot, Hal, R2-D2 and C-3PO -- it's a list that goes on and on.
But closest to my heart is Rosie the Robot Maid from "The Jetsons": a robot to do my chores! I drool at the mere thought of her.
The highlight of this year's Tech·Ed for me occurred near the end of Bill Gates' opening-day keynote, when a robot wheeled itself on stage as a visual symbol of the work going on with Microsoft's Robotics Developer Studio (RDS), for which Microsoft released a community technology preview of version 2.0 in April. The u-Bot, which bore more than a passing resemblance to an anthropomorphized Segway, was self-balancing, and featured a rotating torso and movable arms. Like a lot of things about robotics, the robot's potential was more exciting than what was shown on stage.
But it's easy to see the progress that's occurring in the field of robotics; the future looks promising, and even the present is interesting with tools like RDS. The home page for RDS on Microsoft's site notes that RDS can be used with a variety of physical robots, but you don't need a physical device to install RDS or give it a test run. The tool includes a robust simulation environment, and the site lists several potential uses for it.
A simulation is fine, but what's the point of robots if you can't play with them or experience them first hand? I know some people enjoy the building process for all things mechanical, and would enjoy building their own robots from scratch. But I'm not one of them. I don't want to build a robot, per se, but to make it do cool stuff. I'm much more interested in pre-built robots or modules that I can program. One cool part about RDS is that it caters to both do-it-yourself types and those who want their robots pre-built. For example, there are RDS add-ins for Lego Mindstorms, iRobot devices, and many more.
The toughest challenge in robotics remains the journey from the wouldn't-that-be-cool theoretical to the damn-that's-amazing practical, from Rosie the Robot Maid to your own personal robot maid.
It's unrealistic to expect to see anything like a true robot maid anytime soon, but many of the functions you'd want from a maid have been broken down into smaller tasks and are available now. For example, you can buy robots that mop the floor, vacuum, clean your gutters or your pool, and mow the lawn, among other tasks.
I don't know if any of these devices do the job as well as a person could do them, but they don't have to. If they can manage the job well enough, especially a dangerous or tedious job, that's significantly better than having to perform these functions yourself.
Today, the tasks these robots perform are fairly discrete, and you need a separate robot to perform each task. However, it's easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where many of the more menial household chores might be performed by a handful of specialized robots. Of course, the one thing that's common to all these robotic helpers is the fact that they need to be programmed to accomplish all these specialized tasks. RDS has an important role to play here. Who knows? Maybe RDS (or one of its descendents) will be the tool that enables you to program that real-life Rosie the Robot Maid.
Talk Back: What do you think the future of robots holds for us in both the near and long term? What practical applications do you hope to see or program? Tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.