Bringing Magic to the Cruise Experience — the Role of Technology

By Mark Hilferty, Joint Managing Director, McNeece

"Any sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic" — Arthur C. Clarke "Any technology distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced" — Gregory Benford As we are swept along in the surge of technology that pervades almost every aspect of our lives, we sometimes take for granted the innovations that intervene in our most complex interactions as well as our most mundane.

The passenger shipping industry is no exception: from mooring systems to active stabilizers, Internet access and TV broadcasting ability; technology has 'infiltrated' every area. And these days, with virtually none of the processes undertaken by humans being completed without a technological interface of one form or another, technology has asserted itself as a sort of animated inanimate 'man's best friend'. Though within this 'pseudo' relationship, which can be so harmonious, there can also be an element of distrust, as if somehow we were waiting for a momentary technological lapse of 'domestication' when the techno beast returns to the wild.

So perhaps it is best to follow the advice of my opening quotations, and integrate our technological requirements into to our lives, and host environments, to the point of near invisibility — like some hidden hand.

"The future is not what it used to be" — where the traditional role of the designer has been to create an environment in which the operator can perform, like some ballet of elegant and effortless service against a background of visually seductive interiors. Now, with the introduction of more and more technology, the designer has to consider the integration of this new 'guest' with care and delicacy and use it to weave the dreams for today's 'dream society'. Let us look at some of the areas where technology has made the biggest impact and speculate on the most likely innovations to be implemented in the near future.

Cabin Experience The contemporary definition of a cabin is 'the destination within the destination', and it is true. Even modern American fashion, which minimizes bedrooms in favor of public rooms, still pays homage to this rule. But the demand for independence, or some degree of control over your leisure experience, is an increasing modern phenomenon.

All of this has to be catered for within the cabin scenario: no wonder hoteliers and cruise operators have turned to technology for solutions. Incabin technology has escalated exponentially and will continue to do so as the contemporary traveller, who is at home with a wide range of technology in daily life and feels the need to be connected at all times, demands more autonomy More interactive digital systems are being employed for the remote control of curtains, internet access, television, DVD, CD player, lighting — passive or active — message answering systems and more. Utilizing flat screen technology and infrared remote control you can e-mail, surf the net, shop, access games, movies or music from an almost limitless library of digitally encoded DVD's and CD's, allowing you to watch or listen whenever you want, not just when the schedule dictates.

Active light sensors at low level that switch on when you get up in the middle night are particularly simple and effective.

As is mood set lighting control, traditionally utilized only in public spaces, now an integral feature of intimate places and relaxing spaces.

Even the bathroom, now considered an extension to the bedroom, should not be excluded from the application of technology.

This might be in the form of a telephone extension; sound system, mini water resistant TV screen or even visual communication with the bedroom using hi-tech glass laminates which change from clear to opaque at the flick of a switch or by voice command.

And there is more on its way...

Super thin hi-fi speakers, which can almost be applied like wallpaper, or disguised as pictures or mirrors. Active thermostatic atmospheric controls, which are capable of being pre-programmed to suit your tastes. Some of this pampering can be challenging when first confronted. On a recent trip to Japan I had my first meeting with the digital toilet seat. The array of buttons in green, yellow and red (I never tried that one) more commonly found on your TV remote control at first bemused me, but the automatic flush, wash and brush up that followed eased my initial concerns — perhaps I should have tried the red button. The bathroom 'to die for' moves forward another step.

Public Room Experience "Designers of the new hotel tend to use the lobby as a kind of manifesto for their design intentions." And so it is with technology. The awareness of something special behind the scenes is as important as the 'wow' factor when you first enter a new destination space, whether a hotel, restaurant, nightclub or cruise ship. But beware, as all kinds of sassy, smart and sharp operators are getting potential cruise customers to spend their private leisure time and post-tax pleasure money in increasingly aspirational physical places and stimulating mental spaces. From the ice-cool designer bar, right up to the signature art gallery anchoring the regenerated waterfront, potential guests are spaced out on great spatial design, empowered by great content and caressed into loyalty by great brands, where the use of technology is as clever as it comes.

The cruise industry's response to this has been varied. But it is not just about the choice of bars or of lavish entertainment, it is not even about variety of dining options, nor the awe inspiring atria that give the cruise experience something which, after the first taste, is difficult to give up. Integrating new technology into the environment can be one of the biggest challenges confronted by designers.

Take M&E: given the creative willingness of the engineer and effective installation of control features, it is possible to achieve high levels of environmental comfort while minimizing the visual effect on the interior design. Link this with the designer's desire to vary lighting conditions according to usage and time of day, and we approach a balanced environment. However, we are informed that aesthetics and passenger comfort have to compete for available power with the fundamental operational functions of the vessel, and the compromise is usually borne by environmental aesthetics.

Benchmarks for areas of cruise ship design are invariably taken from the nearest equivalent land-based environments, but our aspirations have to be tempered by the added constraints imposed by an altogether more variable and potentially more aggressive environment.

However, this should not stop designers pushing back the boundaries of accepted design criteria.

For instance, lighting is being revolutionized by the introduction of LED's (Light Emitting Diodes). LED lighting fixtures can qualify for energy efficient incentive schemes. The Enhanced Capital Allowance Scheme can provide large financial benefits to those investing in these products. Under this scheme up to 100 percent, of the expenditure on approved technology, can qualify for up-front tax relief. And there are other benefits. The long lamp life, which in some cases is guaranteed for 25 years, could last as much as 50 years.

That, if nothing else, will kill all other forms of lighting source in due course.

LED fittings when first introduced, although technically advanced, were thought to be ineffective as contributory light sources. Now, with further development, LED usage is steadily increasing, and given their low power consumption, low heat output and long life (hence low maintenance), are making steady inroads into all manner of environments.

Technology can also provide some spectacular and very visible contributions. For example innovations in projection systems, which utilize the possibilities of laser technology to overcome projector focusing problems because the images look perfect on any surface. In conjunction with image processing computers, it is possible to project via six screens on to a dome without any distortions and no junction lines where the different projected images meet. "The net result is the wonder of Virtual Reality. Passengers can be catapulted into the middle of Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or a space shuttle bound for Mars". Incredibly realistic effects can be supplied by the 360 immersion.

Our own Destination Brisbane project is specifying extremely advanced technology and media providers. With public spaces required to change use from virtual retail mall and lounge to media venue and exhibition suite, this is quite a design and technological challenge. Satellite delivery, high speed connectivity and low cost usage of high quality media on a continuous 24/7 basis streaming to strategically located outlets will give passengers empowerment. Add to this the previously mentioned smart card capabilities and the end result will be service that works by anticipation of needs and individual requirements by accessing your personal profile and offering you on-board experiences tailored to suit your needs and desires, not just reacting to requests. It is these, and similar invisible technological tricks, which bring a smile and help deliver the brand values of 'a credible promise of a memorable experience'.

Delivery Systems We have, at present, very sophisticated services management capabilities using the latest fiber optic information transfer and control technology. One of the main stumbling blocks is that any services management system comprises three elements, namely: emergency, security and economy. The difficulty comes in trying to assess which will be the primary mover. Although all of the tools are available, what is lacking is the co-ordination and Security And Escape Always a great area for debate and one of the first issues that confronts you when going onboard a cruise ship is safety and escape. Many have tried and suggested new methods and new rules and indeed shipbuilders now have evacuation simulators allowing them and ship owners access to reliable analysis of the evacuation process'. McNeece has also entered the debate and suggested that new ways of thinking and approach are required: not that these concepts (as illustrated) should be taken as literal solutions. For us the key issues are maximizing safety, minimizing difficulty and maximizing comfort. Our involvement in the EDELL and DSM systems looked to review the current attitude to emergency embarkation, without reducing the effectiveness of the product, thus producing a more engaging, easy to use environment rather than the austere functionalism of existing facilities. Inseparable from this was the need to re-evaluate emergency embarkation procedures themselves; examining passenger flow, life jacket application, assembly point facilities and transfer into lifeboats. Our aim is a seamless integration of these processes, serving to minimize fear and uncertainty in the passenger and promote confidence on the part of the passenger in the crew.

integration of these technologies to transform these individually managed systems into an intuitive and predictive technology, capable of assessing both immediate and future requirements based on observation and interpretation so that eventualities can be properly managed.

What's Next — Brave New Dreamworld "The future isn't what it used to be" and of course it would be easy to think that we might be heading towards a technology park. But don't get confused.

This is actually not about technology, it is about passenger experience. As the world moves from the information age into the age of experience economy, people are beginning to buy into dreams and not just tangible things. Why else is so much time and money spent creating themed and fantasy spaces, dream-like situations that transport you far from reality? Why the need to surround oneself with natural materials to restore 'balance and harmony' to our lives? These dreams need to be supplied by ever more clever delivery systems and active technology vehicles. For the designer, the response has to be based on simplifying what may be complex, integrating what could be intrusive, and employing the cleverest of the increasingly available leisure technologies. The next generation of cruise ships will have to offer the flexibility of the virtual office, the cachet of the London Club, the connectivity of the digital hub, the personal uplift of your favourite spa or the culinary variety of Soho - and more. It will be the wonders of technology that will deliver these dreams and bring magic to the passenger experience.

About the Author: Mark Hilferty is Joint Managing Director of McNeece, London-based designers for the travel and leisure industry. McNeece is part of the Expert Alliance network and a founder member of Designation!, the strategic design consultancy and leisure think-tank.

Currently advising on a range of projects for various government bodies globally including iconic cruise investment generators, Maglev transportation networks and next-generation passenger airships. For further information please contact: [email protected]

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 24,  Dec 2002

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Maritime Reporter

First published in 1881 Maritime Reporter is the world's largest audited circulation publication serving the global maritime industry.