Smart ships: technology at sea
By Sara Macefield | 24 Mar 2020
From magic carpets to virtual butlers, cruise lines are using the latest technology to enhance our experience, says Sara Macefield.
Do you fancy having your pina colada mixed and fixed by a robot bartender or simply shaking your smartphone to order a classy bottle of Moët& Chandon on ice? How about dining al fresco on a “moving carpet” cantilevered on the side of the ship or asking your automated in-cabin cruise assistant to check the weather forecast? Whether you’re a techno-fan or a techno-phobe, the latest gizmos and gadgets appearing on the high seas are proving irresistible to cruise passengers.
Cruise lines know the way to the millennial generation’s heart (the new audience they’re striving to attract) is to ensure they can give shore-based technology a run for its money, while injecting the innovative frills this industry is famous for.
In addition to behind-the-scenes technology that brings increased efficiencies and more eco-friendly operations, cruise companies are investing millions of pounds to ensure their customers can enjoy “smart” cruising at its best by using mobile apps and other devices.
Power to the passenger
Their main focus is to streamline the cruise experience for guests and on larger ships, digital technology that hands more power to the passenger in the form of wearable devices is being rolled out by Princess Cruises and MSC Cruises under their OceanMedallion and MSC for Me gadgets.
Designed to make the onboard experience more seamless and reduce “pinch points” such as embarkation, passengers can also use them to book dining and shore excursions, check daily activities, share experiences – and even unlock their cabin door.
“Technology is revolutionising the way in which both the industry and consumers look at travel and the holiday experience,” says MSC Cruises UK & Ireland managing director Antonio Paradiso.
“With each new ship, MSC Cruises has further developed the technology available to guests onboard to meet their changing needs and, above all, to improve their holiday experience. Our technology is always designed to enhance the human interactions that make cruising so unique.”
One of the line’s most novel additions is what it claims as the world’s first digital personal cruise assistant, Zoe, an oceangoing Alexa or Siri primed to answer more than 800 questions in seven languages.
“The development of devices like Zoe are crucial to helping the new-to-cruise market adapt to holidays at sea as it allows them to ask simple questions that they otherwise might not get around to asking,” explains Paradiso.
“Having Zoe available 24/7 and interactive smart TV screens in your cabin, plus digital displays around the ship means you can spend more time enjoying your holiday and less time at the passenger services desk.”
Princess Cruises, which unveiled its OceanMedallion device last year and has already installed it on several ships, claimed it had been a “game-changer” for guests.
“The positive feedback we’ve received on this wearable device over the past twelve months has been particularly rewarding, with guests stating their whole cruising experience, from embarkation to disembarkation, felt far more effortless and personalised than any holiday they’ve been on before,” says the cruise line’s UK and Europe vice-president Tony Roberts.
“OceanMedallion standout features include quicker check-in, touchless stateroom entry, the ability to order food, drinks and retail items from almost anywhere onboard, and ease of being able to locate travel companions onboard via the family and friends locator.”
He claimed this new technology enabled Princess to gauge passenger flows more accurately around the ship, which in turn helped the company to better understand the guest experience and reflect this in future ship designs.
Similarly, Royal Caribbean is using technology to lead the charge to “frustration-free” holidays with a mobile app that passengers can upload to their smartphone, enabling them to book restaurants, shows and excursions, and navigate the ship by using its Way Finder function. New features on the app include the ability to turn the phone into a digital stateroom key and TV remote control.
Royal Caribbean has also introduced facial recognition technology to identify passengers as they arrive at the port to help eliminate check-in lines, while Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) is being used to transform areas of its ships into virtual environments and interactive game areas.
“Innovation, ingenuity and adventure are part of our DNA at Royal Caribbean and this is manifested across all areas of the guest experience, thanks to continuous technological advances,” says sales director Martin MacKinnon.
“Our guests benefit from state-of-the-art technology from the moment they book their cruise thanks to our digital pre-cruise planner and our advanced app, which allows check-in prior to arrival at port.”
Other cruise companies such as Holland America Line, Marella Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises have also developed their own apps offering similar functions.
The development of these apps has gone hand in hand with massive strides in ship wifi networks that, in some cases, now rivals those onshore in terms of speed and capability to stream movies on to mobile devices.
However, one of the biggest bonuses of cruise line apps is that they don’t even require passengers to access the ship’s wifi (which can prove expensive), as they can be accessed independently on each ship’s intranet.
With some giving passengers the chance to locate their family and friends anywhere on the ship or chat with each other, it’s an ideal way to keep in touch.
An entertaining diversion
It’s impossible not to get caught up in the technological whirl that has revolutionised cruise ship entertainment.
You could find yourself fighting zombies and zapping aliens in the virtual reality pavilions of MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line ships or using an X-ray vision style app to peer through walls into parts of the ship normally off-limits, like the bridge, on Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean vessels.
RCI also uses the latest innovations in its shows to dazzling effect with choregraphed displays of 60-strong drone clouds in ice-skating performances and 3D flying effects that involve a 30ft biplane soaring above the audience in one of its theatre productions.
Roboscreens come to life in synchronised performances on the line’s ships in its special Two70 entertainment venue where vast windows double as ultra-high definition screens with nearly twice the resolution of IMAX screens.
If this leaves audiences needing a drink, they can visit the Bionic Bar where production-line-style robots shake-up cocktails ordered via a touchscreen.
Large interactive touchscreens are increasingly appearing on ships as a way for guests to make reservations, find their way around or access the daily programme to see what activities are taking place.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is one of the cruise lines taking this a step further with a “study wall” on its new expedition ships, enabling guests to look up information about destinations they’re visiting.
Celebrity Cruises has one of the most obvious technological first on its new Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex ships which have a “Magic Carpet” platform on the side of the ship that moves between decks doubling up as a platform for tender boats, a restaurant and a bar.
The line’s new speciality dining experience Le Petit Chef also uses animations to amazing effect that brings your table to life with cartoon-style characters who appear magically on your plate to seemingly prepare each course before your eyes.
When it comes to ordering drinks, Marella Cruises enables guests to summon tipples to their sunbed thanks to a handy remote ordering system, while newcomer Virgin Voyages is pushing the boat out further with its Shake for Champagne app that enables guests to request a bottle of bubbly by shaking their smartphone.
Now that’s something worth celebrating. But it’s also proof that as ships sail into high-tech territory, the cruise passenger experience is being increasingly propelled into a futuristic world.