People running outdoors speed up and slow down without thinking about it – it just happens. On a treadmill, however, they have to manually adjust the speed of the machine. Perhaps they won't have to for too longer, however. Scientists at The Ohio State University have developed a prototype treadmill that detects when its user's running speed changes, and adjusts its own speed accordingly.

Created chiefly by Prof. Steven T. Devor and former grad student Cory Scheadler, the treadmill tracks the user with an inexpensive sonar range finder that's aimed at a point between their shoulder blades.

If they start moving towards the front of the treadmill's belt, the rear-mounted range finder detects that they're moving away from it, and responds by instructing the treadmill to go faster (via a computer linking the two). Should they move towards the back of the belt, on the other hand, it realizes that they're getting closer and tells the treadmill to slow down.

The sonar range finder used by the prototype (Photo: Jo McCulty/The Ohio State University)

While some of the earlier versions were rather herky-jerky, the current prototype reportedly transitions between speeds so smoothly that users don't even notice when it's happening. It also responds very quickly – even when Scheadler suddenly broke into a sprint while using it, he still didn't run off the front of the belt.

The main idea behind the technology is to make treadmill running more like "real" running, and thus more enjoyable. That said, the device has also been found to be better than conventional models for assessing runners' aerobic capacity. In lab tests, a group of 13 endurance runners improved their scores by 4 to 7 percent when using the automated treadmill as opposed to a regular one.

Devor is currently developing the treadmill further, with hopes of ultimately commercializing the system. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

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