About the Author
Ray Renteria has an 18 year history in commercializing advanced technologies in the robotics, graphics, gaming, web and enterprise software marketplaces. He believes that the future of human evolution isn't necessarily biological and chronicles his observations as Chief Blogger at RobotCentral.com. He is a regular contributor to the Scivestor network.
September 11th, 2007 | Published in Investing
Several days ago we learned that Microsoft is creating a technical alliance with Japan robot player Tmsuk (pronounced “tim suck”) to establish a standard robotics platform. It represents the first time a strategic relationship has been established between a major software platform maker and a robot manufacturer. At stake is the effort to bring robots into the mainstream and fulfill Bill Gates’s vision of a A Robot in Every Home.
It’s easy to map parallels between the evolution of the personal computer and the progress of robotics. In their early days, both were used mostly to impress friends with the engineering prowess required to make the machines do cool tricks. When Apple introduced its version of the personal computer it was a spreadsheet application that caused the explosion of mass adoption by consumers. That big bang has yet to occur in robotics primarily due to the lack of standard platform for application developers. The guys who designed the first spreadsheet application didn’t know squat about building computers. The robotics industry must reach the same panacea where robotics application developers don’t have to know squat about robots in order to build a killer app.
It isn’t for lack of trying, though. Several platforms have been made available over the last decade but none thus far has been established as the standard platform for robotics. On the contrary, the continued addition of a new robotics platforms has further compounded the problem.
- 1996 Webots is developed by Microcomputing and Interface Lab to be spun out as Cyberbotics in 1998.
- 2001 Version 1.0 of Player, Stage, and Player Tools is introduced.
- 2002 Sony introduces its OPEN-R architecture with the popularity of the now-defunct Aibo robot dog.
- 2002 Evolution Robotics is founded and later introduces its platform and now flagship product, ERSP.
- 2002 The first version of OROCOS is released.
- 2005 MIT introduces YARP [pdf] (”Yet Another Robot Platform”) which encapsulates OROCOS.
- 2005 (?) OpenJAUS made available. Touts self as “Military-Ready.”
- 2006 Gostai is spun out of Ensta’s Cognitive Robotics Lab in Paris. They introduce Universal Real-time Behavior Interface, or URBI, which started development as early as 2004.
- 2006 iRobot makes AWARE 2.0 available to 3rd party developers.
- 2006 Microsoft releases Microsoft Robotics Studio.
- 2007 Skilligent goes GA with its module. Note: Skilligent says they’re an add-on and not a platform. According to their webiste, “Skilligent! is a software component that can be integrated with various robotic platforms.“
- 2007 CLARAty “reusable robot software” is made available by NASA.
What makes Microsoft Robotics Studio stand out of this crowd is the platform abstraction experience the company has with its operating system and, most importantly, Microsoft’s desire to evangelize the technology and establish a standard in the industry.
Now that Microsoft has this opportunity with Tmsuk, it must be successful. This initiative has white-hot spotlight of attention on it. Tmsuk is a member of the Japan Robot Association which is comprised of 48 members with household names such as Fuji, Mitsubishi, and Yamaha. Success with Tmsuk surely will follow by a push to spread into peer companies within the association which it will need to do in order to gain critical mass.
By American standards, Tmsuk is a relatively small company. As of March of this year, Tmsuk had a little over 1045 million yen (~$9M) in capital with around 30 employees. It’s unclear to me how they make their money. They have some humanoid robots designed as receptionists and most recently have introduced robots that look like the exoskeleton Sigourney Weaver wore in Alien. The latter represents a more practical and likely marketable technology that the company says it’s having trouble selling. Still, the company obviously has staying power. It’s been around since 2000 and is showing no signs of slowing down.
So, what now?
Either Evolution Robots and iRobot drop their own software and adopt Microsoft’s platform (good luck with that) or the Japanese robots whose brand names are already familiar to us will be tomorrow’s application base for the next generation of American software developer. The Japanese listened to Deming because they got his message. They became masters of efficiency and quality in the automotive industry. Tmsuk’s willingness to drop it’s proprietary software from its robots and invest in Microsoft is a modern-day sign that they get the value of having a homogeneous platform. It’s possible that Tmsuk will become the Toyota of robotics and Microsoft will sell tons and tons of robotic platforms.