There’s a new ship on the horizon for Celebrity Cruises, and it’s destined to be filled with high-tech goodies as parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. works on a digital transformation for its entire fleet of 49 ships across six brands worldwide. Royal Caribbean has hired the mastermind behind Walt Disney Co.’s Magic Band mobile app to lead the charge into the seafaring digital age.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. revealed its goal to become more high tech as it unveiled an innovation lab on Monday at its headquarters in Miami, Florida. The company also used the opportunity to showcase what will be its newest ship from its Celebrity Cruises brand, the Celebrity Edge, scheduled to set out on its maiden voyage in the Caribbean on December 16, 2018.

The Celebrity Edge is the first ship that one of Royal Caribbean’s brands has designed completely in 3D. There will be a new mobile app for guests and the crew, and it will include machine learning and AI to act as an intelligent personal assistant for passengers. The company’s tech team is working on a range of new features, including facial recognition to allow for check-in at ports, wayfinding, and automatically unlocking cabin doors for the cabin’s occupant.

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

“One of the many things that are exciting to us about Celebrity Edge is the fact that it’s been designed in 3D and we’ve used 3D for every aspect of the design of the ship, whether it’s virtual reality simulation, full 3D mock-ups, 1:1 scale mock-ups, or 3D screens that we use to look at every different angle of a space to ensure that what we’re building is right not only for our guests but our operating teams,” said Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises.

Cruise companies compete for passengers

Royal Caribbean is plunging into the high-tech arena, as are many of its biggest cruise industry competitors. Making sure they get it right the first time is important, with technology becoming as much of a must-have in the travel industry as it is everywhere else in the world. Most passengers expect to be able to stay connected while on board a ship as easily as on land, and if Wi-Fi doesn’t work, or they can’t order a drink or food on their mobile app, they get frustrated.

Cruise ships are installing better Wi-Fi, adding tech-enabled wristbands and luggage tags and entertaining guests by having robots greet them as they board the ship. Tech is part of everyone’s lives, and even when they’re hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower, they still expect connectivity.

Cruising has traditionally been how people escape from reality and get away from their busy lives for a week or two. But now everyone on the newest ships are staying connected to the digital world whether they want to or not. Although every cruise line that offers high tech options say that passengers can opt out, it seems those passengers will miss out on some key components when so much of the new cruising experience is firmly anchored in the digital realm.

“The issue that we are confronting as a company and an industry is, I like to say, that the pace of change, while it has been rapid, is slower today than it ever will be again. We need to recognize that. It’s simply a fact of life,” said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

SEE: Sail away with high tech on the high seas (TechRepublic)

But what kind of tech are we talking about? At Carnival Corp., there’s a new robotic crew member on some of its ships: A 47-inch-tall humanoid robot named Pepper that greets guests and answers general questions. Dinner menus and photos of guests that roaming photographers take are available for viewing on iPads located throughout Carnival Corp’s ships. On Royal Caribbean’s newer ships, there is a bionic bartender that mixes your cocktails, and the WOWband, which is an RFID wristband that Royal Caribbean debuted in late 2014 and allows guests to make on-board purchases and access staterooms on ships equipped with the technology.

Over on Norwegian Cruise Line, they’ve beefed up their Wi-Fi connectivity to improve bandwidth. And Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Line, both part of Carnival Corp., they’ve deployed a mobile app so that passengers can communicate with each other while on board through instant messaging.

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

To stay on top of the tech realm, four months ago Royal Caribbean hired former Walt Disney Co. guru Jay Schneider as senior vice president of digital to lead its digital transformation. It’s likely no coincidence that Royal Caribbean hired Schneider after its biggest competitor, Carnival Corp., hired Schneider’s former colleague, John Padgett, creator of the Magic Band, to develop Carnival’s new Medallion wearable announced at CES 2017.

As previously reported by TechRepublic, the Carnival Medallion will debut on a Princess Cruises ship, the Regal Princess, in November 2017 and it pairs with the Ocean Compass, Carnival’s proprietary digital portal, to incorporate machine learning in part by assessing data analytics for passengers. Carnival Corp. will add the technology to two more ships in 2018 and hopes to eventually launch it through the entire Carnival fleet of 102 ships across 10 brands.

Fain said he’s not worried about competition from Carnival Corp. “We started developing our WOWband two years ago, so because we had that head start, we will have this in 20% of our ships by the end of the year, compared to 1% [on Carnival]. We’ll have it on more or less 50% of our ships by the end of next year.”

One of the ways that Royal Caribbean will be able to move quickly, Fain said, is because “we’re using more open source technology that makes it easier to build as the world of technology improves.”

Creating the mobile app

Schneider, who spent 10 years at Disney, said he created the mobile app for the Magic Band, and Padgett created the band itself. Although Royal Caribbean began work on its WOWband and introduced it before Schneider joined the company, he said work on the mobile app only began in earnest after he joined the company in November 2016.

“We have no dates yet on how soon this [app] might roll out, but with six ships scheduled [to have it] in 2017, it means we’re going quickly,” Schneider said. Privacy and security is an important consideration. Guests’ privacy is crucial, so Schneider said he has his team working from the ground up to create best practices for privacy in the devices.

Technology changes so rapidly that it’s hard to determine exactly what will be in place in 21 months when the new Celebrity Edge launches. “That’s the tough thing about shipbuilding. Similar to building hotels, it takes a while to lay out a design and build ships. The longer we can wait to do the digital implementation, the better. This is why it’s in a state of evolution,” Schneider said.

“We’re trying to figure out how do we get solutions to scale across our fleet. For the wayfinding, we finally have it down to a reliance on our existing network, as well as the sensors on your phone to dead reckon between access points using your sensors and accurately map where you are. The benefit for us in that model is we can get to scale without having to put new infrastructure on the ship,” Schneider said.

In contrast, Carnival Corp. had to install 4,030 interactive sensors on the Regal Princess when it was updated in dry dock last year in order to prepare it for the Ocean Medallion and Ocean Compass.

“It’s one of our goals. Technology will continue to evolve, so the more we can multi-purpose use the technology we do have, we’ll be able to speed to market faster,” Schneider said.

Everything can’t possibly roll out at the same time, he pointed out, such as the doors that automatically open as a guest walks up, because that requires replacing all existing door locks. But by building a mobile platform that provides key components that can be built on over time, it will allow Royal Caribbean to reach digital consumers and retain them in the future, Schneider said.

“Technology is not simply about inventing new things. It’s also about taking cutting-edge technology and using it in different ways,” Fain said.

The Celebrity Edge will include non-tech features that are unique to the cruise industry as well, such as a cantilevered, floating platform that will rise 13 stories above sea level to be stationed at various decks depending on usage, from allowing passengers access to tenders to get to shore in smaller ports, to acting as an extension of the pool deck or an open-air dining venue. The ship’s interior style, including layout, colors, and furnishings, are being designed by well-known design pros Kelly Hoppen and Tom Wright. 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 top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. For the first time one of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. brands, Celebrity Cruises, is designing a ship entirely in 3D before shipbuilding begins.
  2. Royal Caribbean Cruises has hired a Disney digital guru to oversee its digital transformation and create a mobile app to pair with a wearable device for passengers.
  3. Royal Caribbean, which operates 49 ships worldwide, will have about 20% of its ships using the mobile app and wearable device by the end of 2017, and about 50% by the end of 2018.

Also see