Microsoft searches for robot visionaries

Suitably named WowWee, a Hong Kong-headquartered company, impressed techies in Las Vegas yesterday when it unleashed its most hi-tech army yet of personal robots.

But aside from walking, talking, flying and even purring robots, the spotlight at CES 2008 has so far fallen on Bill Gates, who gave his 12th and last keynote as a Microsoft employee.

As the world's most famous consumer technologist, he has so far failed to win that much attention about the role robots might play in his vision of the digital living room.

Instead, headline writers scorn some of his past predictions, only to then gush about his vision for 2008: flat-screen displays "everywhere", effortless connectivity and natural user interfaces.

Compared to WowWee's inventions – self-navigating/ recharging robots for surveillance, indoor flying, dancing and even joke-telling based on user email, IM and browsing, the Microsoft line-up may sound wanting.

But the Redmond-based company is not ignoring consumer robotics. Only last year Gates said that the emerging robotics industry reminded him of the early PC business.

Tandy Tower, general manager of Microsoft's Robotics Group, will this morning update delegates at the CES on the state of robotics, and air likely applications in the near future.

It is here that Mary Jo Foley, who blogs 'All about Microsoft', might find the "oooh" and the "aaah" that she says has so far been missing from the company's presentations.

"At this year's keynote — which will be Gates' last (at least for the foreseeable future) — there were not many hints about Microsoft's view of the coming digital decade," she wrote in a post-keynote entry.

"In part, the de-emphasis on what Microsoft envisions for the longer term may have been intentional. Microsoft may have wanted to give Gates a chance to bask in the glow of keynotes of years past. Or perhaps it's a sign of the new Microsoft: One where discussions of futures are going to be severely curtailed."

Meanwhile, Microsoft is calling for design and engineering ideas to potentially make robots in the future, and running what it hails is its first ever robotics talent contest – unofficially Robot Idol.

The contest , I Love Robots, lets all entrants showcase their robotic inventions online by uploading photos.

Public voting will then decide a winner who will get £500 in vouchers to boost their prototype.

Enthusiasts but not developers can also get involved: Microsoft's experts will read your 200-word pitch about your big robotic idea and if it meets the grade, they will develop it.

And though its development will be only virtual, MS expects the inventor to effectively get a "professionally-constructed blueprint," plus £250 for development costs.

"We know there is an increasing interest in all things robot-related whether it's the latest gadget or toy…, or a genuine passion to learn more about what robots of the future could do," said Paul Foster, Robotics Evangelist at Microsoft.

"We want to inspire the next generation to think big and get excited about what robots in five to ten years from now might be capable of, which is why Microsoft is calling out to robot fans across the UK".

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