Recreation Facilities Join the Wi-Fi Revolution
Anita Picozzi Moran & Cynthia Brown
As social hubs, today's recreation centers need to appeal to a variety of age groups and interests—offering activities that are popular now and others that will be in the future.
An easy and economical way to build flexibility into any recreation center is through the use of wireless technology. Wireless-enhanced offerings in recreation centers complement the multitasking lifestyles of today's tech-savvy consumers—particularly high school and college students and young adults—and contribute to the convenience factors important to them. Satisfied patrons mean successful facilities.
"Flexibility was the main reason we went wireless," says Joe MacLean, director of recreational sports at Texas Tech University, where a 2002 expansion of the Robert H. Ewalt Student Recreation Center added an upper-level lounge that allows students to connect their computers. "Students expect wireless access now."
In addition, a number of the Ewalt Center's cardio machines employ wireless entertainment systems. "In renovation work, it seemed like a no-brainer, since we wouldn't be adding new conduit," MacLean says, adding, "I think most places will have wireless capabilities in the future."
Wireless computer network technology is known by a futuristic-sounding name: Wi-Fi. But the future is clearly now. According to Infonetics Research, an international market research and consulting firm specializing in data networking, Wi-Fi networking equipment is a $282 million market. Over the next four years, the number of Wi-Fi hot spots is expected to double to 500,000. Consumers are growing increasingly adept at using Wi-Fi technology—which uses radio signals of varying frequencies to broadcast both large and small amounts of data over long and short distances—and will expect state-of-the-art recreation centers to offer the latest in equipment and amenities.
To that end, Wi-Fi technology in recreation facilities is already found in everything from fitness equipment and audio/visual systems to scoreboards and security cameras. By going wireless, facility operators can move data-transmitting computers and fitness equipment anywhere in their facilities, and additional pieces of equipment can be added to the network with relative ease. Equipment usage and maintenance can be monitored and adjusted remotely, and staff members can leave their desks and become even more efficient.
Moreover, Wi-Fi networks cost much less than traditional wired networks. State-of-the-art cardiovascular-fitness and weight-training machines are the most data- and power-intensive components of a recreation center, and the conduit and cabling required to support such workout spaces is substantial. Texas A&M International University's Kinesiology Building, for example, accommodates 4,000 square feet of weight and fitness space, and houses 32 machines that require power. Laying cable in the building's first-floor slab proved cost-
prohibitive due to the volume of additional concrete required. Thus, the decision to go Wi-Fi became an easy one for architects.
While facility designers are just getting wise to Wi-Fi, fitness equipment manufacturers such as Nautilus and FitLinxx have been at the forefront of the wireless-network revolution. Available systems are often composed of two parts: a wireless device that attaches to individual pieces of cardio and resistance equipment, as well as a wireless fitness tracking kiosk where patrons can get personalized data about their workouts. These devices are compatible with and transferable among most brands of existing fitness equipment. And as fitness equipment evolves, new machines can easily be added to an established Wi-Fi network.
Once in place, the systems guide users through pre-programmed cardio and strength-training routines on integrated machines, while other non-machine activities, such as weight-lifting and aerobics classes, can be entered manually. At each resistance station, users are reminded of seat and weight settings, as well as that day's target numbers in terms of sets, reps and weights. The systems encourage proper form and control by recalling proper range of motion and lift speed, ensuring that patrons achieve maximum results during their workouts. On compatible cardio equipment, meanwhile, the machine's existing console is automatically set up with individual program specifics such as time and distance.
A central database records all results at the end of the workout, and provides exercisers and staff with a wealth of information on individual progress toward fitness goals. Data can be accessed through the kiosks on the workout floor, at staff computers or via the Internet.
In the end, this wireless guidance and monitoring allows trainers to be more productive during hands-on workout sessions with patrons. "Our trainers were spending a lot of time helping members recall seat positions and getting set up on equipment," says Roger Altizer, general manager of Johnson City (Tenn.) Health & Fitness Center, which uses Fitness Advisorr by Nautilus. "Now that the equipment provides all of that information at each exercise, we can put greater effort into teaching proper form and spending a little extra time with clients who really need our help."
"I like the system because it helps our members become more confident working out on their own, and it has decreased the learning curve," says Mike Johnson, director of strength training for the Westfield (N.J.) YMCA, which reports an 80 percent retention rate among system users—a full 10 percent higher than that of non-users. "The constant feedback is a great learning tool, especially for new members. Lifting speed and proper range of motion are two of the biggest mistakes made by new strength trainees. Workouts are now safer and more effective than ever."
Equipment maintenance represents another area in which Wi-Fi networks prove particularly effective. Adding simple network management protocol devices to fitness equipment allows for continuous monitoring of its condition. The system "reads" each machine's repair, service and usage information, and wirelessly transmits real-time data to a software program that can be accessed online from any computer. Automated alerts inform club management of maintenance issues via e-mail, pager or cell phone. And because it includes demographic information, usage data gathered by the system enables facility managers to make informed decisions about equipment purchasing and placement.
Another increasingly common application of wireless technology in recreation centers takes the form of audio/visual equipment—from entertainment and assisted-listening systems to wireless mikes and auto-follow spotlights. In the latter application, trainers leading aerobics, cycling or other group fitness classes wear a transmitter, and a spotlight automatically follows them. Cardio Theater produces wireless receivers that affix to the handlebars of bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills and steppers to receive the soundtracks of available TV programming through wireless headphones. In fact, several manufacturers offer wireless cardio equipment (bikes, elliptical trainers, treadmills and steppers) featuring built-in personal entertainment systems with wireless headphones. The cardio area at Texas A&M International's Kinesiology Building will soon boast seven flat-screen LCD televisions, with wireless headsets that can be tuned to any available channel. At Texas Tech, meanwhile, a wireless cardio entertainment area offers users approximately 20 pieces of equipment, 10 televisions and three radio stations.
Wi-Fi's facility management benefits extend well beyond the fitness floor, however. With a Wi-Fi network, maintenance staff can monitor and adjust HVAC, lighting and pool circulation systems from an off-site location. Software programs such as WebLogixT offer pool operators two-way wireless communication with chemical controllers, giving maintenance staff the ability to monitor chemical readings and pump status, view alarms and control chemical distribution remotely and instantly.
Other low-frequency wireless equipment such as security cameras, keyless-entry systems and scoreboard and message board controls offer recreation facilities the same flexibility as the aforementioned products. The convenience afforded by wireless controls in the operation of scoreboards and message boards, in particular, has captured the attention of parks and recreation program managers in recent years. "Two years ago, about 20 percent of quotes issued included wireless controls. Now about 40 percent of quotes include requests for wireless systems," says Tom Harnetiaux, senior marketing analyst for scoreboard manufacturer Nevco.
A main reason for that spike in interest is operational mobility. Wireless scoreboards can be operated from any number of locations within a facility. The average reach of a low-frequency wireless device ranges from 600 to 1,000 feet, usually more than adequate to support the typical scoring functions for most sports. "We can run our wireless system from anywhere in the gym," says John Szabo, athletic director at Bloomington (Ill.) High School. "This has given us a lot of flexibility."
In recreational sports settings, where volunteer help can be a rare commodity, even game officials can carry handheld wireless scoreboard controls as they move up and down the sidelines during a game. Wireless scoreboard systems are particularly beneficial for outdoor fields, where the disruption and expense associated with trenching through existing turf to lay conduit is eliminated. "We were able to save money on the overall installation cost of our project, have less disruption of established turf areas and be more environmentally friendly at the same time," says Mark Vessel, director of operations at the St. Louis Youth Soccer Association, which employs a solar-powered wireless scoreboard system.
Other program managers, namely athletic directors, have approached wireless technology more cautiously. "Some of our customers are initially concerned about wireless scoreboards interfering with coaches' wireless headsets," says Nevco's Harnetiaux. To help eliminate interference from other wireless sources, newer wireless control systems make use of spread-spectrum frequency hopping. Harnetiaux uses the analogy of a 10-lane freeway to describe how the technology works. "If there is a car in front of you in one lane, you move into the next lane and keep moving forward," he says.
With so much wireless technology available, how does one integrate all the components and ensure they work well together? It's quite simple, according to Lee Snedaker of BAi LLC, an Austin, Texas-based company that provides audio/visual and information-technology systems consulting. "Wi-Fi devices such as computers, building automation and fitness equipment do not interfere with each other, because each one has its own distinct IP address. If a wireless node gets maxed to capacity you simply add another wireless device," Snedaker says. "Low-frequency wireless devices such as headphones, wireless mikes, security cameras and scoreboards are set up to select a channel or be programmed with a channel in the frequency range they use—600 to 900 megahertz, for example—much like you can select a different channel on your cordless phone at home if you receive interference. This allows many devices to use a broad frequency range without the overlapping signals that might cause interference. Most of these systems are plug and play, requiring only a channel adjustment here or there."
Because of the ever-evolving nature of Wi-Fi technology, many applications for wireless networks are still being developed. One such future application could be the implementation of radio frequency identification devices in recreation center child-care rooms. RFID tags communicate information on small computer chips attached to objects. A handheld RFID reader identifies the number on the tag, then pulls up information about the child regarding food allergies, medications and other special-care instructions.
Regardless of the application, architects and technology consultants agree that the best time to plan for a Wi-Fi system is early in the building process, preferably during the programming or schematic design phases. Making a commitment to Wi-Fi from the start not only affects the building budget, it will also dictate the very design of the facility. A hardwired system will require decisions regarding whether cables and conduit will be installed in a subfloor or encased in the concrete slab, and poke-throughs will need to be located well in advance of equipment installation. Conversely, if a wireless design is specified, these considerations are rendered obsolete.
Not only will the decision to go Wi-Fi save money, promote flexibility, facilitate staff mobility and enhance operational efficiency—all of which might be lost on the average patron—a Wi-Fi facility just looks cleaner, without the clutter and inconvenience of traditional wired equipment cabling. To the truly observant, a Wi-Fi environment may well influence usage decisions. Access to Internet cafés and entertainment-enhanced equipment likely will entice tech-savvy patrons to choose to frequent a wireless recreation center over its wired competitors and to linger longer once they arrive. And the ease with which workouts using wireless technology are conducted and tracked should keep patrons coming back.
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