All aboard! Go inside the most high-tech cruise ship ever built

Upgrading the network in your house often involves a little upheaval. A guy from your cable company may turn up, his boots may be a little grubby, and some furniture may have to be shifted around. It is, at most, a minor inconvenience.

When you’re doing a similar job on one of the largest cruise ships in the world – capable of carrying around 5,000 people – it’s a little different. When Carnival Corporation started outfitting the Regal Princess (in the company’s Princess Cruises division) with the innovative Ocean Medallion wearable technology platform, it required sailing the ship into dry dock in Hamburg, Germany for two weeks to complete the mammoth task, and we went along to see how the technology could transform the cruise experience.

The Regal Princess entered dry dock on April 17 and over the following 14 days, it was filled with 7,000 new sensors, 650 public wall-mounted touchscreen devices of varying sizes, 1,780 new Wi-Fi access points, 4,030 private digital displays in rooms, three giant new antennas supplying data connectivity, and 75 miles of new cable. Not just any cable, but perwinkle-colored cable, to be exact. It took an experienced team of technicians working 24-hours a day to add this new high-tech layer to the cruise experience. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, they decided to add in a new staircase, paint a new design on the front of the ship, and make a wealth of other improvements as well.

Ocean Medallion

What does Ocean Medallion do? It’s a wearable coin-size device for each passenger onboard that at its most basic, replaces the electronic key to your room. However, it does a lot more than this. Inside is an RFID chip that communicates with handheld devices carried by the ship’s crew, telling them important information about you, such as which drinks you like to order at the bar, if you’re onboard celebrating a birthday or special occasion, and if you really loved a particular meal, restaurant, or show you saw while onboard. It’ll also track your kids, or errant grandparent, if you lose touch with (this feature is opt-in for adults, so you can sneak off if you want).

It also authenticates you on Ocean Compass, the name given to the user interface displayed on all new interactive screens spread around the decks, the private tablet-style monitors in your room, and the big-screen TVs. It’s through Ocean Compass where you book excursions, see itineraries, and even get assistance with nagivating around the enormous ship. It tells you how long it’ll take you to walk to your chosen destination – important on a vessel this massive – whether there are seats available at a restaurant onboard, and when the a quiet time to visit would be. In your room, Compass displays announcements, messages regarding special events, and also controls then entertainment system. It links up with the Compass app which can be installed on your phone, where you can also perform all these tasks, and from which movies started on the big screen can be continued when you leave the room.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The entire Medallion experience is designed to be seamless, reducing what Princess Cruises calls, “friction” from the cruise. In other words, it’s there to make your voyage easier and more personal. There are no logins, no passwords, and no tapping the wearable against anything, not even against the door. Just grip the handle to your room, and provided your Medallion is close, it’ll unlock automatically. It’s also available for everyone, in every cabin, on every deck, so all passengers get the benefit without having to splash out for a high-class cabin. The Medallion itself can be worn on a wristband, in a pendant, or just loose in a pocket. It has a battery, but this will last for many months before it needs replacing, so it’ll never be a concern.

To inject a little fun, everyone gets to choose his or her own avatar for use across the Ocean Compass platform, and it digitally follows you around the ship, appearing on all the interactive screens when you’re nearby. They’re called Tagalongs, and they act just like Nintendo’s Mii and the Miiverse. Created by you, before you actually board the ship, Tagalongs have different themes aboard each Carnival-owned cruise brand. For Princess Cruises, they are all sea creatures, including fish, seahorses, and turtles. Each one can be customized with different fins, patterns, colors, and other markings. They even feature in interactive games, and charms can be unlocked by collecting achievements.

If you didn’t get one of the underlying messages, it’s about personalization. The latest research suggests cruise ship travel is on the rise, and with more passengers expected to sail in the future, Carnival’s technology could help create individual experiences, even if you’re just one of thousands.

Data and connectivity

To function, the Medallion platform relies on two things: Connectivity and data – a lot of personal data. It collects this from passenger questionnaires filled in before the ship departs, and also from your stay and activity onboard. Carnival’s Chief Experience and Innovation Officer John Padgett set our mind at rest regarding privacy, saying, “It’s the guest’s choice to share the data. It’s an affirmative decision if you want it to be used for marketing.” If you do opt-in it won’t be sold to other companies, and only used to personalize future Princess cruises.

The Medallion chip doesn’t store any data, and instead communicates with data centers onboard the ship.

The Medallion chip doesn’t store any data, and instead communicates with data centers onboard the ship, which have been upgraded with custom storage systems and high performance routers during the downtime. Get a glimpse inside a data center, and it’s easy to spot the newly installed periwinkle colored cable that connects all these components together.

Michael Jungen, senior vice president for Carnival, said, “It’s essential for crew and passengers to remain connected with home, but it has always been a challenge for ships at sea to stay connected. On the Regal Princess, connectivity has been increased, with three new satellite antennas fitted. They’re multi-band and multi-provider, and provide the best bandwidth available, wherever the ship is.”

No potential speeds have been announced yet, as the deals are still being worked out, but the ship is equipped with all fiber-optic cabling, ensuring it’ll perform as well as possible at all times. Mobile connections for passengers will be a combination of ship-provided Wi-Fi, or cellular roaming connections, depending on how close the ship is to shore.

Zombies?

The idea of thousands of screens being installed, and every person aboard – passenger and crew member alike – being glued to the screen of some sort for the duration of the voyage, will likely send shivers down the spine of the seasoned cruiser. What happened to enjoying the views, and forming personal relationships with the crew? It’s a legitimate concern, and no one wants a ship full of smartphone zombies.

“It’s not to become like that,” Richard Harry, hotel general manager on the Regal Princess, told us. “Eye-contact is so important in the service industry, and this will be an essential part of the new training. Anything else would be counter productive, and not what we’re trying to achieve here.”

princess cruises readies its high tech cruise ship regal ocean medallion 4
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There will be two months training, starting in September, and interestingly Princess Cruises is asking for volunteers throughout its vessels to join the first Medallion-ready voyages, ensuring those who are really enthusiastic about the technology, have the chance to get involved. Training the passengers on how to get the best from Ocean Medallion will also be vitally important, making this an inspired decision.

Will Ocean Medallion remove, or digitally reduce, the personal treatment that only comes from people learning about each other organically? Harry thinks it’ll do the opposite.

“At the moment we’re relying on the ability of the crew, or their memory, to recognize people, “ Harry said. “It’s doable on a day-by-day basis, but less so for people who return for another cruise. [Ocean Medallion] will enable crew to do it for many more people, over a longer timeframe.”

The future

This is just the beginning for Medallion, and future plans include those to use the system to increase power efficiency onboard. For example, it may automatically activate or deactivate the air conditioning or lighting automatically, based on the chip’s proximity and your movements, in rooms. This could help save costs and reduce fuel consumption. Also, the Medallion itself may be upgraded with new sensors, including a CO2 sensor that will actually tell the system if the device is being worn. This will help with the safety aspect of the Medallion, which can locate people onboard.

The Regal Princess is the third ship in the Princess fleet to have the Ocean Medallion technology installed, but it will be the first to see the program go live. The first passengers to get the cruise-of-the-future experience will be those travelling on November 12 this year.

For hotel manager Harry, it’s the as-yet unknown benefits of Medallion that are most exciting. “Medallion is a big deviation from what we do at the moment, and it enables the crew to do a huge amount more for the guests, including things they’ve never been able to do before. This is the most interesting part of the program, the things we don’t know it can do yet. It’s going to be fantastic.”

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