Royal Caribbean turns to AR, VR to help visualize its new private island project

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Les Shu/Digital Trends

When Royal Caribbean’s ships dock at CocoCay, the company’s private island in the Bahamas, guests will be greeted by Daredevil’s Peak, a 135-foot waterslide with the claim of being the tallest in North America. Surrounding this amusement ride is Thrill Waterpark, which boasts that it has more slides than any other in the Caribbean, as well as a wave pool. Elsewhere on the island, there is a zip line that spans 1,600 feet and hovers 50 feet above ground, while a helium balloon ride provides a spectacular 360-degree view. For the less adventurous, there are plenty of pools, beaches, sporting activities, bars, and cabanas to entertain them.

Part of Royal Caribbean’s new Perfect Day Island Collection, CocoCay is designed to be a fun and memorable day excursion along a ship’s itinerary.

“We know destinations are really important,” Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said during a keynote at the company’s Perfect Day launch event. “It’s a critical element of the vacation experience; it plays a very important role in the decision making for people when they’re vacationing.”

But, there’s just one hitch: The amenities we just described don’t fully exist, yet.

The company is spending more than $200 million to revamp the island’s existing facilities, which started several months ago and will happen in phases, culminating with the Coco Beach Club, an attraction with the Bahamas’ first overwater cabanas. The CocoCay transformation, part of a multi-billion modernization campaign that includes a $900-million investment across 10 new ships over the next four years, is the first of many Perfect Day private resorts to dot the waters off Asia, Australia, and the Caribbean.

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An artist’s rendering of Royal Caribbean’s revamped CocoCay private island. To get people to experience the scope of the project, Royal Caribbean created augmented reality and virtual reality demos . Royal Caribbean

“What we’ve tried to do is create an experience of a day based upon an awful lot of customer feedback that we think will deliver the ‘perfect day,’” Bayley said.

“AR was really the best way to transport people to the Bahamas — the Bahamas in a year from now.”

While it all sounds great on paper, it’s a harder sell when nothing is in place (most of the facilities won’t be finished until 2019). So, for the tech-focused launch event, Royal Caribbean used augmented reality and virtual reality to simulate what the transformed island would “feel” like, all inside a building at New York City’s South Street Seaport.

Royal Caribbean is no stranger to technology. Like many in the cruise industry, the company has been turning its ships into high-tech, highly connected vessels. And it’s turning to tech for it marketing as well. For the unveiling of Perfect Day, Royal Caribbean employed an elaborate setup to create the AR and VR experiences. Sensors placed all over the massive space — divided into “portals” that correspond to areas that will be created on CocoCay — interacted with receivers attached to Apple iPads that were handed to every guest. After stepping into Daredevil’s Peak, for example, you can raise up the iPad and pan around to see just how tall the waterslide is. Or, enter Oasis Lagoon to see what will be the Caribbean’s largest freshwater pool.

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Within the portal areas, users could “see” what the future island would look like, using specially equipped iPads. Les Shu/Digital Trends

“We thought using augmented reality was really the best way to transport people from Lower Manhattan to the Bahamas, but the Bahamas in a year from now,” said Jim Berra, Royal Caribbean’s chief marketing officer, told Digital Trends. “Multiple people can walk into the experience and get a sense for the scale, the finishes, the touches, the vegetation, the navigation — really immerse yourself in all the elements that are going to make Perfect Day Island that special.”

Within the portal areas, guests could activate the augmented reality function with specially equipped iPads.

And in a corner, Royal Caribbean used VR to simulate “Up, Up and Away” — a 3.5-minute helium balloon ride that rises up to 450 feet to provide a stunning observation deck-like experience — using computer-driven headsets (HTC Vive) and stereo headphones. Once you’re “up in the air,” you can see the entire island and the sea and islands beyond, Or, at least the virtual version of the island. But hey, at least the food and drink are real.

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Royal Caribbean used VR to simulate the eventual balloon ride that will take visitors 450 feet above ground. Les Shu/Digital Trends

Of course, you could only partake if you had been an invited guest to the launch event. While you could view promotional content on Royal Caribbean’s website, it lacks the immersive experience. Berra said the beauty of the technologies is that they could be scaled down to fit the environment, whether it’s the small office of a travel agency, a trade show, or inside a shopping mall.

“We own all the code, and we have different ways we could render this out,” Berra said. “You lose a little bit of the effect [in smaller setups], but ultimately, the content is the content. We think it’s a great training tool. We can bring it to our call centers. When consumers are calling about various features, [the agents] can speak more thoroughly about them.”

AR and VR can oftentimes feel gimmicky, and one could argue that here. But from a travel marketing perspective, and Royal Caribbean’s use of the tech, it does work. During our experience, we never encountered any major technical issues with the iPad, considering that the servers were delivering content to 150 iPads simultaneously. But we found it fun and effective to visualize what walking into each area of the island would feel like. The technology doesn’t support placing actual people in those environments, but Berra said the ability is there and could be in the future.

The VR experience was nicely executed, giving you that sense of being there, and with the feeling of movement without moving at all — and without the nausea that tends to accompany the use of VR headsets. Fans kick in as you “float” up, to simulate a sea breeze. If you allow yourself to be away from reality for a moment, it does feel as if you’re 450 feet above ground.

You must have an interesting story to tell. Otherwise, the novelty wears off in about 20 seconds.

Granted, the content for both AR and VR was all computer generated, but we’d be lying if we said it didn’t make us want to book a cruise and head to the island. And that’s what Royal Caribbean is looking to achieve. While it is very much an experiment, the company has been using AR, VR, and mobile apps as promotional tools to help whet that appetite for travel, and it seems to be a resonating, judging from the responses of attendees.

“How is VR bringing more experiences to life, rather than just a new trick?” Berra said. “We’re still at the early days of figuring this out. Clearly, gaming is way ahead, but I expect brands and content creators, over time, to solve this one.”

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A virtual banyan tree that will exist when the island’s transformation has been completed. Les Shu/Digital Trends

But technology alone isn’t the key to success — it’s purely a delivery system. The travel industry is certainly enamored with using technologies like VR in its marketing campaigns, but Berra said that you also must have an interesting story to tell. Otherwise, the novelty wears off in about 20 seconds, when the user hits the escape button to go do something else, according to Berra. 

“We have unbelievably good content and a great story to tell,” Berra said. “With AR, where multiple people can be in an experience and can be talking to each other, that kind of shared social experience is very consistent to what we do every day at sea. With VR, it was a chance to do a guided tour. Blending these two technologies in a way that’s never been done, we thought was appropriate for this incredible destination that we’re building.”