Microsoft dangles free tools for aspiring robot developers

Company aims to make its Robotics Developer Studio the platform of choice for tomorrow's robo apps

Just as Dr. Frankenstein needed brains to bring life to his monster, robotic engineers need software to drive their creations. Apparently, Microsoft would very much like for its Robotics Developer Studio to be the dominant platform for robo apps, as the company is now giving away its newly updated RDS -- bundled with some non-robot-specific tools -- for free.

Microsoft RDS is a Windows-based environment that includes a lightweight asynchronous services-oriented runtime and a set of visual authoring and simulation tools for developing apps.

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Notably, the latest release of RDS comprises Microsoft CCR (Concurrency and Coordination Runtime) and DSS (Decentralized Software Services) Toolkit 2008, a set of .Net and Compact Framework class libraries and tools designed to help developers reduce the complexities of building loosely coupled concurrent and distributed applications. Said toolkit was previously available as a separate product. Perhaps the merging is a ploy to generate more interest in RDS. Sweetening the allure of downloading the RDS platform is the fact that it's now free of charge.

Whatever Microsoft's true rationale for melding CCR and DSS with RDS -- and offering the whole package for free -- robots are on the rise, at least according to a recent blog post by Microsoft Robotics manager Stathis Papaefstathiou. Robotics technology has "begun to transition along the path from a big, expensive, specialized, industrial level towards a future of a friendly, service-oriented, home and personal level," he writes. "But for the robotics market overall to reach a tipping point of sustainable scale, we're going to need more software that can help our community to create a broad and relevant range of scenarios for consumers."

A common platform for developing that essential robotics software is a must, Papaefstathiou notes, and surprise, surprise, he suggests that RDS fits the bill.

RDS recently made headlines as one of the platforms for Ford Motor's Caravan Track, a cloud-computing based application developed by students at the University of Michigan that lets groups of drivers share route and vehicle information and coordinate stops as they travel. RDS (primarily the CCR and DSS components) has also been used for such applications as coordinating transactions, balancing loads, and handling failures in MySpace's server farms, and coordinating HPC networks at Indiana University.

Those applications, I admit, are rather non-robotic in nature. Actual robots running RDS-developed apps include RoboDynamics, CoroWare, and Surveyor. Those company's robots are used for research, education, exploration (think Mars Lander) -- and robotic telepresence, a means of transporting one's presence to a remote location using a robot. Times Online, for example, reported recently about an employee for robotics firm Willow Garage who works from his home in Indiana -- but pilots a robot around the company's Menlo Park, Calif.-based office. The robot is equipped with a screen, video cameras, speakers, and wheels, enabling him to interact with his coworkers, attend meetings, and otherwise give himself a physical presence at work.

Realistically, robots won't be showing up at the office or in the average home any time soon. But when they do, Microsoft clearly wants a jump on the competition.

This article, "Microsoft dangles free tools for aspiring robot developers," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.