It’s a time of change for Royal Caribbean as the company adds technology to its 48-ship fleet from stem to stern over the next two years.

The changes are intended to make cruising even easier for passengers. It includes a mobile app that uses AI to act as a digital assistant, wayfinding to help passengers navigate around a ship’s many pathways, VR and AR experiences in dining and arcade games, skipping check-in lines due to facial recognition technology in port, and using a wearable device or smartphone to automatically unlock cabin doors for the cabin’s occupant.

Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean, said the company has put a big investment into the tech staff to support its digital transformation.

Twelve months ago, Royal Caribbean hired former Walt Disney Co. guru Jay Schneider as the senior vice president of digital to oversee the company’s digital transformation. Schneider said he’s looking for more employees to add to his tech team, and he wants anyone talented in innovative tech to reach out to him on LinkedIn.

“I want people to read this, and I want them to reach out. To get going at the speed and pace and burning platform that we’re going at, we need talent. It takes people,” Schneider said. “I’m a big believer that you don’t just wholly outsource your innovation to another company. So, to do that, we’ve been hiring leaders in various fields whether it’s engineering, design, product, as well as finding talent within our company and using those leaders to help build their teams as well as augment with really key strategic partners where necessary.”

SEE: Royal Caribbean steps up the high-tech battle on the high seas (TechRepublic)

Royal Caribbean first announced its digital transformation in March 2017, with the unveiling of the 3D lab it was using to design the upcoming Celebrity Edge, which will set out on its maiden voyage in the Caribbean in December 2018. Royal Caribbean Cruises owns Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, TUI Cruises, Pullmantur, Azamara Club Cruises, and SkySea Cruise Line. The two largest lines are Royal Caribbean with 24 ships and Celebrity with 12 ships, before the Edge launches next year.

The 3D lab, which Royal Caribbean calls a 3D cave, has proven valuable in ship design and beyond, allowing Royal Caribbean to also use it to test out how facial recognition will work in port. “We’ve been able to actually go in and use the caves to adjust the design of the flow of guests and then run sample scenarios about how people will move through the port,” Schneider said.

The facial recognition feature will probably begin with QR codes and evolve to facial recognition, Fain said, explaining that they’re testing out various methods of using facial recognition to figure out which will work best for passengers.

VIDEO: Celebrity Cruises designs ship for the first time using all 3D (TechRepublic)

The changes also include a mobile app, which is in a beta version on two ships at the moment. The current version allows passengers to see their cruise schedule and what’s available on board on a day-to-day basis. “Then over the next two years, we will continue to add capabilities on a relatively frequent basis. The next set of capabilities will allow you to register in the app, check in via the app, upload your selfie to be able to use our facial recognition boarding, book shore excursions, dining, et cetera, and then we’ll continue to add capabilities. We have x-ray vision [VR] and digital games built in,” Schneider said.

“The whole idea is a pipeline of new products and services for guests that will be available through the app. Right now, it’s just a simple content app available on two ships, and the reason for that is we wanted to make sure that every new product we get into market, we disrupt the guests’ and employees’ experience as little as possible. I want to make sure that, even if we build a great app, that every aspect of the technology works flawlessly. So we’re being diligent, we’re taking our time, and we’re testing, adjusting, and scaling as we like to say,” Schneider said.

If all of this sounds quite entertaining, it is. Schneider produced the mobile app for Disney’s Magic Band, so making tech fun is part of his skill set. Originally, Royal Caribbean called its wearable device a WOW band, and the plan was that passengers would need to wear it in order to use the features on the app and beyond. Fain said now they’re making it non-proprietary, so passengers can either choose to wear the band, or use their iOS or Android device.

VIDEO: Royal Caribbean to launch a mobile app for its ships this year (TechRepublic)

By the end of the year, the app will be available on five ships in the Royal Caribbean lineup, which includes the Celebrity line. And the plan is to have it on half the fleet by the end of 2018 and all Royal Caribbean ships by the end of 2019.

“The pace of change is so fast, that ironically, that wearable technology which was the cat’s meow two years ago is now being replaced by a device-agnostic approach,” Fain said. The digital component is referred to as Excalibur within the company, in order to emphasis the power and importance of the technology, he said.

“What we’ve come to appreciate is that the technology is simply moving so quickly, that nobody can afford to do the perfect app. And if we try, we will have something that is an app up to speed as of that nanosecond, but we won’t be able to continue to upgrade and that will affect all technology advances. So we’ve shifted to a non-proprietary approach,” Fain said.

The reason Royal Caribbean is putting so much work into improving the technology of its ships is because it’s essential to stay afloat.

“I don’t think it’s a question of whether it’s [technology] required to stay it’s competitive in the cruise industry. I think it’s required to stay competitive in the world we live in. People simply expect that whatever they’re doing, whether it is buying a cup of coffee or planning their vacation or hailing a taxi, they expect it to be simple and frictionless. And so we just think this is a requirement that basically any business would have today,” Fain said.

Data analytics is a big component of the digital transformation at Royal Caribbean.

“We’ve always had staggering amounts of data, and the difficulty has been in making intelligent use of that data,” Fain said. “Using data analytics to help them [passengers] in selecting what’s of greatest interest to them, helps us in understanding what their needs are. So there’s no question that data analytics is a key part of it,” Fain said.

The cabins will also include new features that can be controlled from the mobile app or a panel on the wall, with everything from climate control to lighting and opening and closing the curtains.

“I think a lot of people are wondering why we’re doing this. Technology is such an important driver today,” Fain said. “It’s really hard to do this right. It’s hard to understand what you want. It’s hard to understand how to do it. And doing it right is really an amazing skill.”

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