Microsoft made it easier to create robots on Thursday by launching the final release of its Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 4, which moves out of beta status. The free software can power moving robots that can “see” and understand their surroundings with the Xbox Kinect accessory. Using a Windows laptop, Kinect sensor and robotic base, developers can create relatively inexpensive but functional robots for the home or office.
Using the $1,250 Eddie Robot Platform from Parallax, Harsha Kikkeri, a member of the Microsoft robotics team, built a robot butler of sorts: The device can follow him on command. Kikkeri notes that he programmed the robot to follow because that’s what young children do once they become mobile. It’s a clever example and gets better when the robotic butler serves up drinks and snacks to Kikkeri’s pals. For the Star Wars fans out there: Shades of R2-D2 on Jabba’s pleasure barge, no?
When the Kinect arrived, I had a feeling it wouldn’t be limited to the Xbox 360 gaming console. Why? It added another set of sensors, similar to those found in today’s smartphones, that I suggested could power robots (subscription required). Since I wrote that, we’ve seen Kinect used in robots ranging from $499 all the way up to $400,000.
All it takes is a Windows laptop, the programming knowledge and a way to bring movement to a Kinect sensor, and you’ve got the foundation for a useful robot. Once you add in a near-limitless amount of data — support for cloud-based connectivity and information retrieval — you’ve got a robot that not only can see its surroundings but can also determine what the various objects around it are. Maybe Kikkeri’s next step will be to have his robotic butler tell you how many calories are in the drinks it delivers.