Console technology is at the heart of many of the changes in cardio equipment these days. It’s where many manufactures have focused their research and development attention, as witnessed by the product introductions at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association trade show this month in San Francisco. Many of those involved upgrades in the look and functionality of consoles as well as the technologies and software accessible on the consoles.

“It’s the brains of the product,” says Mark Zabel, vice president of global marketing for Matrix Fitness, Cottage Grove, WI.

Take, for example, Matrix’s new T7xe treadmill. The treadmill has touch screen display with FitTouch Technology. It is compatible with iPods for audio and video playback. It is compatible with Nike+iPod for the Gym for tracking workouts. It is compatible with the Virtual Active video technology. And, for club operators, it has a wireless data transmitter for asset management tracking.

And what about Precor’s new P80 consoles, introduced on the company’s new Experience Series cardio line at IHRSA? The P80 consoles also feature touch screen technology, iPod connectivity, on-console TV viewing, workout tracking technology, a variety of workout program options, an Ethernet connection for networked fitness experiences and a Preva system that allows for asset management.

And Life Fitness’ consoles on its upgraded Elevation series cardio line showcases the Life Fitness Reader, on which users can read books and magazines on the console. The equipment had already allowed iPod connectivity and provided its Virtual Trainer program.

Manufacturers are staking their futures on the idea that consoles must now provide members with a variety of options because members are all different. Some exercisers want to read a magazine, others want to watch TV or listen to their iPod. Yet others want to track their workouts.

“So the focus has to be around understanding user preference,” Zabel says. “Not that we need to be all things to all people, but…that’s how you are going to make people happy and engaged with exercise. So if we are able to do that, they are more likely to join a commercial facility and retain their membership at a facility.”

But do members really want all this technology? Yes, according to manufacturers.

“Innovation is what people expect,” Chris Clawson, president of Life Fitness, Schiller Park, IL, says.

People see technology innovations in other areas of their lives—vehicles, phones, cameras—and they expect many of the same innovations in their fitness equipment, says Adam Hubbard, director of product development for Precor, Woodinville, WA.

“As that technology in a club member’s world evolves and gets easier to use and (there’s) more networking capability, that grows member expectations,” Hubbard says. “That same member is expecting the goods and services that they interact with to evolve at that same rate. So just offering utilitarian products, members will be disappointed. Members are getting harder and harder to please.”

Clawson adds, “People think you are trying to figure out what people want, but you aren’t. You are trying to figure out what they need. What they want is what they know, but what they need, they may not even know.”

Clawson points to the evolution of the cell phone as an example. Twenty years ago, no one would have said that they needed a cell phone, but today, most people would classify mobile phones as a need. People originally just used cell phones to make calls, but after asking users what they wished they could do with their cell phones, manufacturers added many options to products—e-mail and camera capabilities, for example—that people might now say are needs.

It all comes down to asking people what more they might want from technology, then providing that to them, then showing them how to use it so they see its value to them, Clawson says.

But even with all the new technology, sometimes simpler is better, especially when it comes to the deconditioned market. When Matrix researched the development of the console for its T7xe treadmill, the company learned that 90 percent of users pushed the quick start button when they got on the machine, Zabel says. Matrix’s research found that some people thought the words “quick start” meant the treadmill would start really fast when they pushed the button. So Matrix changed the wording on the button to “go.”

The research also revealed that the reason more people didn’t try the other programs was that they didn’t know what the other programs did. To remedy that, Matrix added a question mark under each workout program’s name, so people could read about the program before trying it out.

So even as complex as the consoles on equipment might get with the options they offer members, manufacturers must still keep simplicity in mind.