Ocean cruises are no longer about going off the grid to enjoy leisurely days at sea and on-board entertainment. Cruise ships are installing better Wi-Fi, adding tech-enabled wristbands and luggage tags, and even having robots greet passengers as they board the ship, all in an attempt to create a tech-rich environment.
As times have changed and tech becomes a part of everyone's daily lives, passengers have become increasingly interested in staying connected to the outside world and for their lives to continue unabated on the high seas. This isn't an easy feat when you're hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower. Passengers also expect more than just a second-run version of a Broadway show—they want the outside world and a lot more.
SEE: Photos of tech on board the world's largest cruise ships (TechRepublic)
"The ability to retrofit the ships and to bring their overall technology footprint up to a more modern standpoint is a need in the industry," said Kevin Carl, global managing director for digital travel for Accenture. "Technology enables the entertainment experience. Whether in the shows or the menu selection or the on-board entertainment. Expectations for very personal touches are not only commonplace but being demanded."
The latest tech advancements on the high seas are taking away one of the simple pleasures of cruise ships—getting away from it all—and making everyone stay connected to the digital world whether they want to or not. Even though cruise line reps say passengers can opt out, they don't truly get to do that when menus, photos, and other cruise ship staples are digitized and handed out on iPads, and each ship has a mobile app so you can IM your friends while on board. You can no longer use the excuse that you were sipping a rum runner on the lido deck as to why you missed an excursion with your friends. If you don't check the ship's IM app, it's as rude as ignoring a text on land.
To meet these demands, cruise lines are responding with tech improvements such as robot bartenders that can dispense rapid-fire drinks, and friendly robots with a sci-fi vibe. There's also improved Wi-Fi, RFID wristbands and luggage tags, and even virtual reality game centers.
Doing the robot
Carnival Corp., which operates 10 lines including its namesake Carnival Cruise Line, has drafted a new crew member in the form of Pepper, a 47-inch-tall humanoid robot developed by Softbank Robotics. Charged primarily with helping passengers during embarkation and answering general questions, Pepper also can recognize human emotions and react accordingly, so that people can feel more of a connection in interacting with Pepper.
SEE: How Pepper the robot will become newest crew member of Costa Cruise Line (TechRepublic)
Pepper's moods, which are shown on a 10-inch display tablet on the robot's chest, come from listening to what passengers say and using a 3D camera to detect human facial expressions. If it senses someone is pleased, it gets happy in return, and if it senses you're agitated, it might try to calm you or even sigh or raise its voice. (It speaks English, German, and Italian.)
The first Pepper sailed on the AIDAprima, the newest ship in Carnival's AIDA line, in April 2016 and is now on four Carnival ships, said Rahul Chakkara, chief digital officer at Costa Cruises.
But onboard robots aren't just information desks. Robotic arms at the Bionic Bar on four of Royal Caribbean's ships can make classic or custom cocktails using 50 ingredients suspended in bottles overhead. Though you'll lose the chance to get a generous pour on your dry martini—the arms will dispense strictly controlled amounts of booze—the Bionic Bar can mix two cocktails per minute, a bonus on a ship that can fit almost 5,000 people.
Royal Caribbean's Quantum class, which includes some of the largest ships afloat with 18 decks, is resorting to more practical tech. It issues RFID luggage tags to let passengers track luggage in real time through mobile devices so a passenger can locate their lost or delayed luggage, and know if they should wear their travel clothes to the dining room, or if their luggage is just minutes away from arriving at their door. The cruise line also provides NFC-enabled wristbands to access cabins, pay for drinks, or book meals. This eliminates the need to carry around the all-purpose credit-card sized keycard that was previously used, and which many passengers were so determined to keep track of that they wore them on lanyards around their neck.
Some cruise lines have been busy beefing up their Wi-Fi connectivity to improve bandwidth. Norwegian Cruise Line has teamed with data and information security company EMC to quadruple the bandwidth across its fleet, which includes Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. New satellite dishes and faster Wi-Fi started rolling out during the summer of 2016.
SEE: Cruising connected: How to stay online when traveling the world (TechRepublic)
"Over the years, internet on cruise ships has been slow and expensive—due in large part to the general logistics of connecting at sea. But as more and more travelers come to expect connectivity while traveling—whether on land, in the air, or at sea—cruise lines have invested significantly to meet those expectations and provide better, more affordable internet. While some cruisers still enjoy using the time to unplug, a number of passengers welcome the improvement, which allows them to stay connected to family, friends—even work, if necessary," said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of CruiseCritic.com.
Passengers want Wi-Fi on their cruise in part so they can upload videos and photos to social media. CruiseCritic.com did an informal online survey in May 2016 and asked, "How important is Wi-Fi connection on your cruise?" Of the 3,626 respondents, 51% said it was very or somewhat important. Another 22% said they'd just connect while in port, and 28% said they'd rather stay offline.
Though onboard Wi-Fi fees aren't a bargain, costs are slowly sinking. In the past, passengers were limited to a set number of minutes for as much as $2 a minute; now, prices are still high though a bit more forgiving with the introduction of unlimited plans. Norwegian sells a $30 daily unlimited Wi-Fi package on cruises of 12 days or less, and $25 a day for cruises of 13 days or longer.
Other large cruise lines are opting for unlimited plans, as well. Royal Caribbean charges $13 a day for web and email access without streaming, and it's $18 a day for unlimited streaming and video chat apps. And on Carnival, it's $5 a day to use the ship's app to chat with friends on board, $16 for email and web access, and full bandwidth including video calls is $25 a day. Compare this to airlines, where it's $8 each way on Southwest for Wi-Fi access, although streaming on video sites such as Netflix isn't permitted.
But Wi-Fi isn't the only way to get online. Princess Cruise Lines has recently deployed an app to its entire fleet of 17 ships so passengers can communicate with each other on board for free—a boon on a ship that is a thousand feet long. The Princess app includes menus, an option for rating on-board restaurants, and real-time information updates on excursions and events on the ship, said Nate Craddock, project lead for guest experience applications for Princess Cruise Lines.
"We don't think about the power of the little computer we have with us that's our own device. It's taken for granted," Craddock said, referring to smartphones. "In the past, getting on board a ship meant all of that was cut off. Not only from everyone's daily lives, but from their phone. We weren't leveraging a lot of this technology in ways that we could on board."
Why they're adding tech
"We're really working to help our guests, and we're looking for ways through technology to elevate the cruise experience," said Gaby Gonzalez, vice president of technology for Carnival Cruise Line. "We're looking to double down on guest devices and how we can really help leverage those devices to personalize their experience such as eliminate times in line."
Carnival Corp., which owns 10 cruise lines, including its namesake Carnival Cruise Line, brought in John Padgett, a vice president at Disney until mid-2014. At Disney he was one of the chief designers of the MagicBand, a wearable that lets Disney guests open their hotel room, gain access to theme parks, and pay for meals. Now Carnival's chief customer experience officer, Padgett will begin introducing new tech initiatives for passengers next year.
And those ship photographers that take photos of passengers during the cruise? Typically, the finished prints are posted on a long wall for passengers to browse and possibly buy. On Carnival's Vista, LED screen have replaced the photo wall, or guests can view and order prints straight from the app (passengers who don't bring a mobile device on board can borrow an iPad Pro).
Green on the blue seas
Tech isn't just for passengers—it's also helping cruise lines be more eco-friendly. Carnival Corp. invested $400 million on comprehensive exhaust gas systems to remove major pollutants from a ship's exhaust gases whether at port or at sea. It's also building the first-ever cruise ships to be powered at sea by liquefied natural gas, a clean-burning fossil fuel. The AIDAprima, a Carnival Corp. ship which launched in May 2016, uses this LNG fuel to allow it to be powered almost emissions-free.
Let me entertain you
And even the simple things matter. On the Carnival Vista, there are two USB ports in each cabin—a first on a Carnival ship—for charging all those Wi-Fi-enabled devices. An early complaint in the Carnival cabins is that the room's keycard has to stay in a slot by the USB ports to enable charging at all times, which means you can't take your key with you when you leave the room if you want to charge your devices while you're having dinner or soaking in the hot tub. But some passengers have already gotten around this by using a spare plastic card in their wallet, such as their Costco membership card, to stick in the slot while they're away.
Tech is also playing a role in passenger entertainment, whether it's an LED-enhanced round stage theater on the AIDAprima, or the 250-foot high LED screen on Holland America's ms Koningsdam. It's all part of the plan to make a cruise ship include a more high tech feel than in the past. Virtual reality isn't just for landlubbers, either. Entertainment options are evolving, as well. On the Norwegian Joy, scheduled to sail on its maiden voyage in 2017, a game pavilion with VR experiences and simulator rides will have 360-degree surround sound and multi-sensory special effects. Wearing an Oculus Rift VR headset, you can battle the forces of the dark side in a "Star Wars" battle pod or ride a virtual roller coaster.
"Technology enables the entertainment experience. Whether in the shows or the menu selection or the on-board entertainment. Expectations for very personal touches are not only commonplace but being demanded," Carl said.
What it all means to passengers
Though the advent of high tech on the high seas will change the sailing experience for many guests, there's always a cost involved for any upgrade, which is likely to be passed along to passengers in higher fares. Yet, cruise lines see tech as a way to attract younger tech-savvy passengers who might not have considered a cruise.
Those challenges that cruise lines face are unique to the cruise industry, and Carl calls it a "liquid expectation" in that it is quickly moving and flowing into something else as people have more high-tech options available in their own home and expect to see the cruise line equivalent on ships.
"I think cruise lines have some interesting challenges," Carl said. "They have new ships coming on market that provide great new digital experiences and that's driving demand for cruisers to experience the next great thing that's on offer from their favorite cruise line or experiment with a new cruise line. And as that digital bar gets higher with new launches, that starts to set some level of expectation for the rest of the fleet."
"The reality is if you don't provide connectivity, some of the guests won't come on board," said Costa's Chakkara. "Some of our guests do come on board to switch off connectivity. We find that some want to be completely connected, and others want to turn it off and chill out."
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.