A robot in every home

I’ve been trying to keep track of industry news, and at the moment it seems as to me as if everyone is either blogging about the Apple iPhone  (Engadget blog) or Windows Vista (Windows Vista Team blog). However, the announcement that caught my attention recently was the launch of the ‘Microsoft Robotics Studio‘ (IET).

The story briefly mentions Microsoft’s plan to "establish standards for controlling robots", but didn’t go into technical details, although I managed to find some useful background in Bill Gates‘ article  ‘A robot in every home‘ (Scientific American).

The article makes a promising start by mentioning common standards and platforms, and I was starting to wonder if Microsoft might actually be beginning to embrace  Device Software Optimisation (Linux Devices);  but after reading a little further, I found that the instead of enabling choice and flexibility for hardware platforms, the Microsoft Robotics Studio appears to be tied to the PC architecture (the phrase "We may be on the verge of a new era, when the PC will get up off the desktop…" seems quite revealing). The article also mentions open platforms, but I couldn’t find any mention of open standards to enable vendor choice and interoperability, only Microsoft-proprietary software. In fact, a report in The Register seemed to express dismay that the statement by Microsoft "…there is a sense of
openness..someone with a Mac could fire
up a web browser an interact with a robot from there"
– this really only appears to pay lip service to open standards. So, it doesn’t appear that Microsoft is adopting DSO yet.

However, Scientific American article is quite thought provoking in other ways. Bill Gates mentions some of the functions performed by contemporary robots: including vacuuming the floor – probably referring to the Dyson DC06 vacuum cleaner (PDF: IPI Industrial Robots, Article 2); but strangely he doesn’t mention the incredible engineering achievements of the Honda ASIMO humanoid robot (wikipedia), or the Mars Rovers which are being taught new tricks (BBC News) and have an increased level of autonomy. He then goes on to mention some potential robotic applications in the future, including treating patients and handling hazardous materials. Although the word safety isn’t used once in the entire article, these are definitely are safety-critical applications, and made me wonder if Microsoft is finally planning to enter the safety-critical software market? This would certainly mark a significant change in direction.

So, will Microsoft take the bold step to truly embrace COTS open standards and safety-critical systems, or will it continue down the closed proprietary route?

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