Brad Feld

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The Treadputer

Mar 21, 2006

I’ve got a goal of running a marathon in every state by the time I turn 50.  I’ve done 6 and I’m 40, so I’ve got a lot of running in front of me.  A few months ago, I told Ross that I wanted to integrate a computer workstation into a treadmill so that I would work while I ran.  Part of my training regimen involves walking at a decent pace (3.3 miles / hour) so I want to be able to spend board / conference call time on the Treadputer rather than sitting at my desk or laying on my couch.

We’ve had the Treadputer operational for about 45 days and I love it.  I had high expectations for walking, but low expectations for running.  It turns out that the Treadputer is highly functional when I’m running, which enables me to do some of my longer runs during the day while I’m on a call rather than having to get up at 5am to get them in before the day starts.

Part of my goal was to have a fully functional workstation that was equivalent to the one on my desk.  I’ve used a three monitor setup for the better part of a year (and a two monitor setup for several years before that), so I needed plenty of horsepower.  Following is the base system:

  • IBM ThinkCenter 3.2GHz PC
  • 3 Video cards (ATI Radeons)
  • 3 19″ NEC Monitors

  • A 6 monitor mounting system (we only use 3)

  • Bluetooth stereo audio headphones

  • Desk microphone

  • USB Headset (for voice calls)

  • Logitech 2.1 speakers

  • Kensington Trackball

As you can see from the picture, this is tightly integrated with my Vision Fitness T9450HRT treadmill.  The software is mostly standard stuff build around Microsoft Windows XP Professional and Microsoft Office, with a few exceptions to handle speech and phone.

  • Dragon Naturally Speaking (for voice recognition)

  • Cisco IP Communicator (for IP Softphone)

  • Skype (for other calls)

When we first assembled the Treadputer, Ross was skeptical that I would be able to read the screen while walking and assumed that reading while running would be impossible. While the three monitor setup helps a lot, it was surprisingly easy to read while walking or running.  We’re running all three monitors at their standard 1280×1024 resolution and haven’t juiced up the font sizes. 

While we thought reading would be difficult, typing seemed like it was going to be a real challenge.  We started with a shelf built into the treadmill for the keyboard to sit on.  After about five minutes, it was clear that the keyboard needed two controls – both height and tilt.  To be really usable, especially while running or walking fast, the keyboard needs to be tilted up at a 45 degree angle and be able to be lifted and lowered to suit the person on the treadmill.  All I’ve got at this point is a sweat soaked prototype (build out of a cardboard box) – Ross promises me that a real version is coming soon.

Oh – and the mouse was useless.  It’s impossible to control a mouse while walking or running.  A big stationary trackball (also tilted up at a 45 degree angle) solved this problem nicely.

I’ve always been fascinated with voice recognition – one of the earliest things I ever did on an Apple II was work with the Scott Instruments VET-2 (“voice entry terminal”) which did very rudimentary voice recognition (but was state of the art back in 1982.)  I doubted that Dragon Naturally Speaking would work while I was running, but it performs almost flawlessly after thirty minutes of training.  I’m still finding my way around it – although it does remind me (by not recognizing anything) to slow down my running pace if I’m breathing too hard.

Finally, I wanted the phone system to be simple and easy to deal with for several hours at a time.  It turns out that the Cisco IP Softphone is trivial to configure (I occasionally use it on my laptop when I’m on the road and I need to make IP calls) and with a headset works great.  Since I usually close my door to spare my office mates from the noise (and smell) I make while running, we are trying to get a free standing audio mike to work, although currently it sounds like I’m in the bottom of a tunnel talking into a tin can in a windstorm.

If you wander by my office and see me puffing away, or if you have the misfortune of being on a call while I’m panting, at least you’ll know what the cause is.