Q&A: Tablet PCs Aid Design Collaboration in International Robot Competition

Competing students include (L-R): Julien Barrier, France; Martin Jonikas, U.S., and Alexandre Takeshi Ushima, Brazil.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., August 12, 2002 — The task: from a standard box of parts, build a shoebox-sized robot. This robots goal: move around on a designated surface, swing a weighted pendulum, and/or pick up objects and put them into a bin.

It is not nearly as mundane as it sounds — designing a remote-controlled robot to strict specifications, and manipulating the engineering calculations to ensure it will work is no simple feat. It requires an advanced amount of collaboration and creativity. And it’s the challenge facing competitors in the 2002 International Design Competition (IDC), held August 16 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Teams of students from eight leading universities — from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and Japan — are competing to design a robot, each made from the same set of parts. The winning team creates the robot that, in the 45 seconds allotted, moves the pendulums the most or puts the most mass into the bins.

For the complex engineering problem-solving required, a computer is obviously critical. To help coordinate their efforts and ideas, each team was provided with two Tablet PCs, slim form-factor portable computers, about the size of a legal notepad and half the weight of most of today’s laptop PCs, and in this case, manufactured by Acer. Planned for public availability November 7, the Tablet PC runs a superset version of the Microsoft Windows XP Professional operating system that integrates pen and speech input with state-of-the-art laptop capabilities. Teams competing in the IDC are using the Tablet PCs to create and compile diagrams, designs, calculations and models, as well as to share this information among the team.

John Williams is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and director of its Intelligent Engineering Systems Lab. Williams and Kelly Berschauer, product manager for Tablet PC at Microsoft, spoke to PressPass about the Tablet PC and their use in the IDC. Both agreed the Tablet PCs greatest advantages over laptops are its
input — which enables users to write directly on it just as they would on a pad of paper – as well as its wireless collaborative capabilities.
“Being able to draw in it is great it allows a lot of free-form thought flow,”
Berschauer said.
“It opens up a real whiteboard scenario, where you can capture all the teams information, adjust it, share it, and have a complete collaborative experience all electronically on the PC.”

PressPass: Dr. Williams, what is the IDC about and how did the Tablet PC come to be involved?

Williams: MIT is involved in a research project with Microsoft called iCampus, an MIT – Microsoft Alliance. As part of the project, we have been writing software for laptops and PCs, mainly Web systems based on Microsoft .NET.

Weve been looking for ways to write project-based courses, and when we heard that the robot design competition was going to be held at MIT this year, Alex Slocum (a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a co-instructor in charge of the IDC) said,
“This is exactly what we want and the Tablet PC is the perfect technology to facilitate it.”

The IDC competition involves eight teams from around the world. Almost every university has its own course in designing and building robots. The annual IDC event is an opportunity to get the international teams together for two weeks to interact and collaborate with each other.

PressPass: Why would a Tablet PC be better than a laptop?

Williams: The Tablet PC has an immediate advantage when youre trying to think and be creative — to do that, you dont want things that get in your way. For example, if you sit down and work in, say, a standard slide deck, it takes a long time to sketch out things and create drawings. Plus, its very difficult to write in equations, which is much more easily accomplished with a pen and paper. If you do this work on paper, you run into a problem because you then have to scan it in, which adds time and complexity to the process. The Tablet PC provides an ideal environment for idea generation by really delivering on the pen-and-paper metaphor electronically.

Berschauer: Being able to draw in it is great — it allows a lot of free-form thought flow. Another thing we find is that when you use a Tablet PC you don’t leave your PC behind anymore — when people have traditional laptops, they rarely take them away from their desks. A traditional laptop is not acceptable in many places — people dont want to hear keyboard noises in a meeting. Thanks to the pen input and innovative form factors, the Tablet is overcoming a lot of these past constraints. Combine that with wireless capabilities and its even more powerful – the ability to get at any information you need, anywhere you are, really does empower people to be more productive more hours of the day.

PressPass: Are there any modifications to the Tablets used in this competition?

Berschauer: They are standard Acer Tablet PCs that should be available November 7, though John has ink-enabled an application he is using for the engineering process, using the Tablet PC software development kit (SDK). Because Tablet PC is a platform, its very easy to add inking capabilities to applications. The SDK is available on the Web, so anybody who’s a developer can get it and add ink to their existing applications.

Williams: We loaded CAD (computer-assisted drawing) systems onto the Tablets, which is fairly heavy stuff — if you went back a year or two ago and put some of these programs on 500 MHz machines, youd be struggling. But the Acer Tablets we are using are at 750 MHz, and once you get up to that level you can run most applications. Were running Microsoft Visual Studio in them as well on the development side.

PressPass: How have the IDC competitors taken to the Tablet?

Williams: The students are only in the first week of using them now, but its clear

the Tablets

are highly valuable in terms of drafting designs. When we had

just two Tablets on campus we couldnt get them away from the people who went to Microsoft to pick them up! Our experience is that once people get hold of them, they dont let go. Using the Tablet is pretty intuitive — theres a little learning curve, but its fun.

And, in exchange for this learning curve, the students have the unique experience of working with innovative software

and hardware before it’s publicly available.


exposes them early to

collaborative techniques that will become commonplace in

just a matter of time.

PressPass: When will the public be able to get a Tablet PC?

Berschauer: They are scheduled to be available November 7. We have many partners building Tablet PCs — the ones MIT is using for the International Design Competition are Acer TavelMate 100s, but we also have Hewlett Packard, Toshiba, Viewsonic, Fujitsu, Motion Computing, and others coming out with very innovative Tablet PC designs. There will be a lot of different form factors, different specifications and bells and whistles, but all will run the core Tablet PC operating system which provides the same high-level rich inking experience.

Note to editors: For additional information on the International Design Competition, contact Kristen Collins in the MIT News Office (
[email protected]

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