Best technological innovations on cruise ships: High-tech cruising for the 21st century

The onslaught of technology in almost every facet of our lives can be overwhelming, even headache-inducing – and that is probably the last thing you want on a cruise holiday. But the plethora of cruise-ship innovations over the past several years has resulted in a guest experience that is more efficient than ever and, frankly, just plain fun.

CRUISE TECH FOR BEGINNERS

If you have never been on a cruise, or if your last cruise experience was of the less contemporary kind, you will be amazed at what cruising is like today, and is set to become. Consider this: you enter the cruise terminal, flash your mobile at a security scanner, proffer your passport, and smile at a facial-recognition camera. No further check-in is necessary.

A 3D map of the ship guides you to your stateroom, and the wristband you wear automatically opens the door when you arrive. Inside your cabin – an interior cabin – you gaze out the virtual porthole at a real-time image of the port, complete with setting sun. You wander over to the bar, there to consider whether you want to book a skydiving session or a film in a 5D theatre. Meantime, your cocktail is ready, served to you by … a robot.Believe it or not, everything described above is available today or in the coming year, on one ship or another. Tomorrow's technology has arrived. More than three dozen new cruise ships will launch in the next three years, and the competition to fill all those berths with paying passengers is fierce. So if it seems like the cruise lines are trying to outdo one another with splashy tech breakthroughs, they are.

THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT

Royal Caribbean recently unveiled a mobile app that does everything except give you a back rub. Currently available on the Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas and soon to be rolled out across the entire fleet, the app provides details of the upcoming ports of call, connects you with an artificial-intelligence bot for dining and activity recommendations, and, in the near future, will allow you to e-chat with your travelling companions. Most importantly, you can order a drink from the bar, wherever you may be on the ship, and a server will show up soon after, beverage tray in hand, having found you through the app's geo-location technology and an uploaded photo of your face.

NCL's Cruise Norwegian app, currently available on the Norwegian Sky and on the soon-to-launch (mid-2018) Norwegian Bliss, lets you do most of the above, as well as make calls and send messages to your on-board companions for a one-time nominal fee. MSC Cruises' MSC for Me app, currently available on the Meraviglia, gives guests 24-hour real-time access to the ships' concierge staff – whether it is to ask about vegetarian options at the restaurants or how to reserve a spot on the next day's shore excursion.

WAY BETTER WI-FI

A major complaint among cruise passengers in the past has been the poor quality of internet connectivity. Cruise lines have heard that lament enough to take some serious action. Carnival, the largest travel company in the world and the parent of such lines as Princess, P&O Australia, Holland America, Cunard, and Carnival Cruise Lines itself, recently introduced MedallionNet, which it claims has "exceptional" speeds, "pervasive" signal strength, and "unprecedented" consistency.

Meanwhile, Regent Seven Seas, one of the most luxurious cruise lines, has quadrupled its bandwidth, making it easier to post photos while on the ship. Royal Caribbean claims its VOOM service is the fastest internet at sea, "from the Caribbean to Australia". The service is enabled by satellites from SES Networks, which also supports the Carnival Wi-Fi network.

THE HIGH-TECH STATEROOM

Disney Cruise Line hit a new high when it introduced the Magical Porthole, a virtual-reality window on the outside world that can dramatically relieve the claustrophobic nature of an inside cabin. The view is a real-time stream from the ship's exterior cameras, and is sometimes embellished with a fly-by from one of Disney's stable of cartoon characters. Royal Caribbean did Disney one better by creating a virtual balcony for interior cabins on seven of its ships. The floor-to-ceiling HD image, with real-time views of the passing ocean, comes complete with sound effects.

But the biggest improvements in stateroom tech are yet to come. When the Celebrity Edge is launched in December 2018, guests will be able to book the ultimate-in-tech Edge Sky Suites. There, a guest's iPhone will activate the door so that it unlocks and opens on its own as the guest approaches – no key card required. Guests will sync the room's TV with their mobile using Bluetooth, enabling them to choose the room temperature from anywhere on board. Their phone will let them control all the cabin lights and moods. When it's time to sleep, the guest's phone lets them close the curtains and turn out the lights. They can even use voice control to do all these things. Just say, "Computer, good-night", and all will be done for you.

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CUTTING EDGE PUBLIC SPACES

Cruise lines are quickly bringing their high-tech chops into their ships' lounges, restaurants, shopping centres, and other public areas. But it is not just "technology" that is being put into play. Mathematics has entered the cruise equation. The Eden space on the upcoming Celebrity Edge will be a multi-purpose dining, relaxation, and entertainment space whose design is based on the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematics equation that accounts for everything from the shape of a snail's shell to the fearsome spiral of a tropical cyclone.

A 90-metre ramp envelops the space, where guests might do yoga in the morning, read a book over a cuppa in the afternoon, or indulge in a nip or two after dark. And speaking of a nip or two, guests might feel they have had three or four (or more) if they take a seat at the bar on the Celebrity Edge's Magic Carpet, a moveable deck the size of a tennis court. The architectural technology employed in this venue – the world's first cantilevered floating platform, according to the line – allows the bar to rise and lower between decks, climbing as high as 13 decks above the sea. Similarly, the Rising Tide Bar on Royal Caribbean's Harmony, Oasis, and Allure (plus the Symphony of the Seas, launching in March 2018) also goes up and down between decks, but from the interior instead of the outside. Stopping at decks five and eight, the elevator-like bar lets guests say they've toured the ship without leaving their stool and the accompanying rum punch.

Princess has embraced architectural technology to create an over-ocean walkway, called the Seawalk, that extends eight metres outside the normal ship silhouette on the Royal, Regal, and Majestic. Don't look down: You are some 40 metres above the roiling ocean surface, standing on a glass floor. But if it is unusual views you want, the Northstar Viewing Pod on Royal Caribbean's Quantum, Anthem, and Ovation is what you will be after. The pod offers 360-degree views of the surroundings, whether in port or at sea, hovering 100 metres above the surface in a glass-enclosed viewing booth dangling from an outsize robotic arm.

Tech developments in public spaces are sometimes less flamboyant than that, of course, but with more charm. On the Disney Cruise Line Dream and Fantasy, for instance, guests can tour the world at the Skyline Bar. Virtual "windows" on the bar's walls recreate realistic skyline views of the world's capitals. The Bionic Bar, available on Royal Caribbean's Anthem, Quantum, Ovation, Harmony, and soon-to-launch Symphony, lets you order a pre-defined cocktail or to create the recipe for one yourself (and even give it a name, for future reference). The trick here is that the drinks are made by robot bartenders. Just think: perfect cocktails, no political opinions, and – best of all – no tipping!

It is easy to be gobsmacked when the future hits you in the face that way, but the cruise lines aren't done yet. Royal Caribbean recently debuted some of its future plans, and they are the stuff of dreams. Imagine dining with a VR headset that places you in a cozy French bistro or a Tokyo yakitori restaurant, depending on what you have ordered. Imagine X-ray-vision screens that let you peek behind walls and into the inner workings of the bridge or other off-limits locales. Imagine lying in your bed and, instead of a ceiling, seeing a starry night or the canopy of a rain forest. Then imagine looking down and seeing not a carpet, but an artificial-reality glass floor and the foaming ocean.Actually, if you wait a minute or two, you won't even have to imagine – because those things, and much more besides, are almost here.

TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN WEAR

Technology you can wear? That is one of the improvements the cruise industry is banking on in 2018 and beyond. A case in point is Royal Caribbean Cruises' WOW Band, an RFID bracelet that replaces key cards to let guests pay for on-board purchases and access their cabins. Early responses from users, though, have been mixed, with praise for the device's light weight and its being hard to lose, but thumbs down for its clunkiness and the need to remove it and hand it off to the bartender when ordering a drink. It picks up on the technology previously introduced with Disney Cruise Line's Magic Band, which opens guestroom doors and completes transactions.

Princess Cruises' Ocean Medallion, now in a limited testing phase on the Regal Princess, can be worn as a necklace, a bracelet, or a clip, or just placed in a your pocket. If the roll-out of the Ocean Medallion goes as planned, it could up the wearables game by allowing passengers to interact with the ship's services via digital displays throughout the vessel – for example, by ordering a drink from any on-board location, locating their travelling companions wherever they may be on the ship, and sending text messages to others on board. Looking ahead, MSC Cruises is rolling out a similar wearable technology throughout its entire line of ships.

Are we okay with this? And yet the obvious benefits of providing your personal data to the cruise line are incontrovertible. By giving one's private details to the Royal Caribbean app, a boarding guest using the line's SMART check-in system can go from the pavement to ship in under 10 minutes, with no check-in counter, no forms to complete, no queues. MSC Cruises has interactive bracelets that open your cabin door, help you find your way around the ship (within a precision of five metres), and let you pay for on-board purchases. The Ocean Medallion wearable device now being tested on Princess Cruise's Regal Princess works in concert with mobile software that can offer recommendations for activities and excursions. ("Hello again, Graham! Perhaps you might want to spend a little less time in the Compass Bar tonight! Just a suggestion …") And the wristband geo-location technology can be vitally useful, as when a passenger goes missing.

Big Brother, or no big deal? Think it over while the robot bartender pours you another daiquiri.

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