New cruise ship a floating heaven for tech geeks

Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas has satellite Wi-Fi with speeds that rival land-based counterparts

A view of Quantum of the Seas from the ship's North Star, a glass capsule that lifts passengers 300 feet in the air.

A view of Quantum of the Seas from the ship's North Star, a glass capsule that lifts passengers 300 feet in the air.

Walking up the gangway to board Royal Caribbean's tech-laden Quantum of the Seas, it was hard not to marvel. Across the harbuor was Manhattan, and at 348 meters the new ship is almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall. But it's what the ship contains that made my inner geek salivate.

While most passengers were ogling the food options I checked the speed of the satellite Wi-Fi and tested the raft of other technology onboard -- including robot waiters and virtual seascapes - that the company hopes will increase passenger convenience.

Billed as a smart ship, the Quantum of the Seas will make trips from New York harbour (Cape Liberty in Bayonne, New Jersey, specifically) to the Caribbean until the middle of 2015, when it embarks on an odyssey to reposition to its new home port of Shanghai. As a tech reporter invited on board for a few days to check it out, I was determined to maintain a skeptical stance, but some of the futuristic services enticed me to capture footage of gadget after cool gadget.

See Quantum of the Seas and its robots.

Satellite Wi-Fi

Quantum's Wi-Fi is provided by a constellation of satellites from O3B Networks. The last satellite went into space in July and Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas was the first ship to deploy the service, about four weeks before Quantum.

On the first morning at sea, when we were about 100 miles off the East Coast I clocked 4.65 megabits per second down and 4.03 megabits per second up, as tested with speedtest.net. Later in the day it was 3.85 megabits per second down and 0.85 megabits per second up. During the second test I was still able to stream high definition video on Netflix and YouTube.

The ship will have three tiers of Wi-Fi service available for passengers to purchase. There will be hourly, daily and full voyage packages that are $US20, $US40 and $US160, respectively. The full voyage price is based on seven nights and all three prices are for the middle tier of speed -- what Royal calls premium -- designed for posting photos, browsing and streaming standard definition video.

During our tests we were given access to the top tier, or premium plus, of service. The ship allowed all passengers to connect to the network for free during this sail. There did seem to be some issues with the Wi-Fi while we were in port. It was difficult to connect and the connection was slow or non-existent at times, but those problems seemed to be fixed once we set sail.

"We've only been able to get the capacity utilization up to about two-thirds of what we have on board [600 megabits]," said Bill Martin, CIO for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

He said that because there is capacity, the company doesn't need to limit demand for the service by charging high prices. He doesn't expect the service to be a big moneymaker for the company. It should only account for about 4 per cent of revenue on the ship, according to Carloa Mengolini, vice president of onboard revenue. Food and beverage accounts for about 30 per cent.

Martin said that other ships charge up to $US0.75 per minute for connectivity, significantly slower than Quantum's.

RFID and luggage tracking

"We don't lose bags, but our passengers think we will," joked Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

When passengers board the ship, they will drop their bags at check-in and each bag will get an RFID tag. Through Royal Caribbean's Royal IQ smartphone application, guests will be able to track their bags from the curb to their room. Fain said it's helpful because bags aren't delivered instantly and passengers can enjoy the ship while waiting for an alert that their bags arrived. For this preview sailing we were told not to bring more luggage than we could carry ourselves. Porters weren't available so I wasn't able to test the tracking technology. It's too bad because when I'm traveling with my video gear, packing light is not my forte.

The ship is cashless and passengers use RFID wristbands to pay for items, open their stateroom doors and check in during muster drills. The muster drill, required for everyone on board, happens before the ship sets sail and is a way for passengers to familiarize themselves with emergency procedures. Passengers are assigned a specific spot on the boat to assemble and the crew is able to check in passengers using the RFID wristbands. That information is sent in real time to the bridge, where the captain can monitor the status of an evacuation.

Virtual balconies

Of the 2090 staterooms on board, about 400 are interior rooms with no live view of the ocean. Instead, passengers can view the passing sea through a virtual balcony. On the bridge of the ship are two $20,000 Red Epic cameras capturing the ocean in 5K resolution. The image is transmitted within a few milliseconds to an 80-inch high definition display turned on its side in the guest's stateroom.

"We use high speed processing because if what you feel doesn't match the motion of the water then you may start to feel sick," said Martin.

Martin said that the virtual balconies are not going to be repurposed for other content. Guests can turn them on and off and change the volume, but they can't watch a football game and they won't be used for ship announcements.

"If you do anything else with it, you start to lose the illusion," Martin said.

Robotic bartender

Two robots on the ship can strain, muddle, mix and shake about a thousand drinks a day at the Bionic Bar. Set in one of the high traffic areas on the ship, the two Kuka robots created cocktails after passengers scanned their RFID wristbands and designed their own custom drink or chose one from a menu. After adding a drink to the queue, the robots got to work, whizzing and whirring around 30 liquors and 21 mixers. About 60 seconds later a small conveyer belt delivered the drinks to the passengers.

The origin of the project had nothing to do with Royal Caribbean.

"It was a request from Google for their IO conference in May to show how new technology is changing the way we live," said Michael Lewis, a developer at Makr Shakr who worked on the robots.

"The Bionic Bar doesn't reduce staffing," said Richard Fain. "It's actually more work." He said the bar needs two bartenders to help passengers with the app and to answer questions.

The robots are calibrated to millimeter accuracy to know where all the drinks and mixers are located. Beside the robots, the system displayed drink analytics with the most popular beverage being a liquor-filled Long Island Iced Tea.

Sister ship Anthem of the Seas, a virtual duplicate of the Quantum, will be cruising from Southampton, England, to the Mediterranean in 2015.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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