Monday, June 26, 2006

Email Interview with Tandy Trower, Microsoft Robotics

UPDATED on 27/6/2006 on the conclussions to the first question

I had an email exchange with Tandy Trower, General Manager for the Microsoft Robotics Group.

Filip: Is Lego Mindstorms NXT supported out of the box? Will it be?

Tandy: “We have a couple of tutorials for NXT. More will be coming in next technical preview. Note that we currently only support NXT as a remote client. So we do not have support for deploying code on the robot to run autonomously.”

Right now, Microsoft only supports controlling the NXT over its Bluetooth connection. Microsoft does not have information on when (and if) C# will run autonomously on the NXT brick.

I believe this will leave space for initiatives such as NQC and RobotC, that target the NXT brick (as well as other robotics platforms) for autonomous operation.

Filip: How do you anticipate modeling Lego robots in your environment?

Tandy: “You will see in our simulation tool support for a simple NXT bot. We are talking with Lego about how to support their robots. Currently modeling a robot takes some work for the simulation. You have to build the graphic rendering and match it up with the physics modeling. For the real hardware, it is much easier. Our services model enables wrapping lightweight interfaces around any robot components. We will provide some in the SDK to help people get started. The sources for the sim pieces and services will be available for people to modify.”

On the actual hardware side, things sound really great. Unfortunately, I don’t have the NXT hardware to test it yet. But it is shipping, so let me get back to that once I can actually play with it.

Not having an straightforward way to model your Lego robot in the simulated world will likely be a major obstacle to testing Lego robots in simulation.

The ideal solution would be if someone mapped the physics of every Lego Technics brick (dimensions, weight, …), and provided a visual editor that allowed to stack bricks onto each other, much like real Lego works. I have no experience with the PhysX chips, but I assume calculations might be too intensive to represent every block separately. Probably, the editor would have to combine non-articulated stacked bricks into a single compound new brick.

That would be a great start, but there are other issues. How about a line following robot? Could you easily draw that line? Stuff like that will matter a lot in actual use.

Filip: How realistic are the simulations of the physical environment, where is that heading?

Tandy: We integrate the Ageia physics engine, so simulations can be very realistic. Currently we don't have support in the technical preview for articulated joints. That will be coming probably in the next tech preview which will be available very soon. You should try out the sim tutorials and you can see for yourself how realistic it can be.

I’m looking forward to what I can do with the articulated joints.

Thanks to Tandy Trower for answering my questions!

Meanwhile, since I haven’t got any NXT hardware yet, let’s take up that advice and build my own simulations. I’d like to build some basic Lego Mindstorms NXT swarm behavior in the Robotics Studio simulator. Coming up in one of the next articles…


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