Tag Archives: Shut Down

Shutting down Microsoft’s robotics group?

As a roboticist, it is sad news that Microsoft shut down their robotic group.
I remember that MS released Robotics Developer Studio (RDS) in 2008 and I installed on my old laptop, Pentium 4 1.2GHz, Fujitsu 512MB RAM.
It was a great simulator and a development tool, but couldn’t actually figure out how to use it or didn’t have too much interest on it.
Anyway, I wish they didn’t throw away RDS and someone could take this in order to do something useful for robotics.
Integration with ROS(Ha! There is Gazebo..) or any open-source?

Illustration: IEEE Spectrum; images: Microsoft

Simulation of a mobile robot platform created by the Microsoft

robotics group.

In 2007, Bill Gates wrote his influential “A Robot in Every Home” article in ScientificScientific American*, envisioning a future “in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives.” The article reflected his belief that robotics was going to be hugely important, and Microsoft had to have a major role in it. Two years earlier, Gates had asked one of his top lieutenants, Tandy Trower, also a big believer in robotics, to lead a group with the bold mission of bringing robots into the mainstream.

This week, word got out that, as part of its current restructuring, Microsoft decided to shut down its robotics group. (Two sources at Microsoft have since confirmed the news to IEEE Spectrum.) At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Googleand Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots.

Microsoft’s decision may seem abrupt, but in reality the company’s enthusiasm for its robot initiatives has been waning for years. After Bill Gatesleft his day-to-day role at the company in mid 2008, Steve Ballmer reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with robotics being just a “strategic initiative” at the company and wanted to know how it could become a significant revenue generator.

At that point, the group’s main project was a robotics development and simulation software package called Robotics Developer Studio (RDS). The goal was to make RDS into a tool that would allow anyone to easily program a robot (doing what BASIC did for the PC, in Gates’s view). But RDS was slow in attracting users, and the company was giving it away for free except to commercial users (which had to pay a fee). Gates and Trower didn’t see that as a problem: they had decided that Microsoft had to first prove itself with the robotics community, and that they would look for revenue opportunities later. With Ballmer in charge, though, the lack of a clear business model became an issue.

Trower looked at different markets and decided that robotics could play a key role in helping with a problem many nations are facing: their rapidly aging populations. But apparently Ballmer and other Microsoft executives didn’t agree with him, as Trower decided to leave and founded his own robotics start-up, Hoaloha Robotics, to pursue that idea. (Hoaloha has been working in complete secrecy for years, revealing very little about the robotic platform it’s developing.)

After that the group continued to work on RDS, eventually making it completely free in 2010. RDS adoption was still slow, and now it faced formidable competitors such as the Robot Operating System, created by Willow Garage, which gained significant traction in research labs. The last major RDS release happened in 2011. That year, the group showed off some demos, including a mobile robotic platform that used a Microsoft Kinect sensor to navigate [pictured above in a simulation]. As Kinect’s popularity exploded among robot makers and researchers, it appears that the robotics group directed more efforts to areas like vision and navigation (just last week, the group organized an autonomous navigation challenge at an IEEE robotics conference in Chicago).

But it’s unclear what the group’s latest ambitions were, and what plan it had formulated to fit into Microsoft’s overall business strategy. IEEE Spectruminquired about the group’s activities over the last year and received no response. It appears that, as Microsoft sought to downsize its research activities, its remaining robotics effort seemed a stretch.

We’re confident that the departing researchers will find positions elsewhere, but still, it’s frustrating to see a big company like Microsoft exiting an industry that, to quote Bill Gates in his SciAm article, “could have just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years.”

* Microsoft originally submitted the Bill Gates article to IEEE Spectrum. But after a disagreement over how much editing the manuscript needed (ahem, we thought it needed lots), the company withdrew it, later running inScientific American. I still fume every time someone mentions that article to me.

UPDATED: Willow Garage to Shut Down? Company Says ‘No, Just Changing’

Source from: http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-software/willow-garage-to-shut-down

UPDATE 11:37 p.m. EST:
Here is Willow’s response in full:
Willow Garage has decided to enter the world of commercial opportunities with an eye to becoming a self-sustaining company. This is an important change to our funding model.
The success of the PR2 personal robot and of ROS will continue. There are close to 50 PR2 robots in the world and Willow Garage support of the platform will not diminish. And of course, ROS, as an open source platform, will continue independent of our business model choices. In addition to Willow Garage, its supporters include the Open Source Robotics Foundation and all the other contributors in the ROS community (academic, industrial and individual) who have made it the platform of choice for Robotics.
While Willow declined to comment on our original story before we posted it, as far as we can tell Willow’s response doesn’t directly contradict any of the information that multiple sources (including current Willow employees and past Willow employees) have told us. Our concern is that if the change of funding model is as simple and as innocuous as Willow’s post makes it sound, we would not have received multiple, consistent tips over the weekend that something very serious had happened. Our original headline, stating that the company was to shut down, reflected the information that these sources gave to us. We now have decided to update it in response to Willow’s official statement. We hope to receive further clarification from the company.
IEEE Spectrum has learned that Willow Garage, the Silicon Valley robotics powerhouse that brought the world the PR2, ROS, TurtleBot, and several robotics spinoffs, will likely be dissolving within the next few months.
While we have no official confirmation or comment from Willow Garage itself, multiple sources inside the company have informed us that the decision to dissolve was announced to employees last Friday. Without any information coming from Willow (the company did not respond to our requests for comment), we’re hesitant to make too many assumptions about what exactly is going on or why, but we are reasonably certain (certain enough to be posting this) that this is not some sort of temporary situation that has a chance of being resolved: Willow employees will be moving on, and the company (or at least, the company as we know it) will cease to exist within just a few months.
The biggest question we have is of course why this is happening, although it’s worth noting that much of the practical (i.e. income generating) work being done with the products that Willow Garage has created is being performed not by Willow itself, but by Willow spin-offs, including the Open Source Robotics Foundation, Industrial Perception, hiDOF, and most recently, Suitable Technologies. With that in mind, we’ve got a lot of questions that we’ll be asking these companies over the next days and weeks to try and figure out how their future is going to change, or if it’s going to change, in a post-Willow robotics industry.
We’ve been fans of Willow Garage for a long, long time. Through the PR2, Willow helped break the hardware cycle that kept researchers building robots and not teaching them to do anything. Through ROS and its commitment to open source, Willow helped foster a culture of collaboration and made sure that good ideas and hard work benefited everyone. And through TurtleBot, Willow made advanced robotics accessible to dedicated researchers and hobbyists who might not have been able to afford a PR2. Willow has played a hugely significant role in robotics over the last five years, but whether we like it or not, and whether we’re prepared for it or not, it appears as though we’re going to have to tackle the future without them.
With this news public, we’re expecting some sort of announcement from Willow Garage, and we’ll be following up with everyone we can to try and figure out exactly what’s going on.