Royal Caribbean Cruises unveiled a vision of a cruising future that includes virtual reality dining, drinks that find passengers wherever they are, stateroom ceilings that show the sky, and boarding made simple by facial recognition technology.

Not to mention driverless shuttles.

At events last week at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the cruise operator showed off some of the changes that are coming soon to ships, as well as ideas that may not materialize at all.

But the overarching theme was about innovating to remove hurdles that cruise passengers might encounter as they seek vacation bliss. The buzzwords were the same popular terms that are often invoked by travel companies: frictionless, on-demand, artificial intelligence, chat, virtual, automation.

“In today’s world, technology and making things easier is no longer a very nice thing to have,” said Royal Caribbean Cruises Chairman and CEO Richard Fain. “The truth is technology is simply something that people expect. It’s an entry requirement, it’s not an option.”

Under the “making things easier” category, the cruise operator showed off a facial recognition feature that is meant to streamline the boarding process, as long as passengers submit their photo in advance. That is expected to be in use by late next year at PortMiami when the new megaship Symphony of the Seas arrives.

Also coming soon: A more robust app that allows travelers to plan activities well in advance and even check out shore excursions through virtual reality videos. That app will also eventually include a virtual concierge — essentially a chatbot — as well as artificial intelligence capabilities that help make even the earliest planning decisions. Less practical uses are rolled into the app as well, including augmented reality boardwalk-style games and “x-ray vision” to see through walls.

One feature that the company showed off last week allows passengers to order a drink and have it delivered right to them. In the demonstration, servers carried a drink along with a phone that displayed the face of the person who made the order.

Ships are also being updated to replace old door locks with mechanisms that allow for keyless entry via the app.

The company, which owns the Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises brands, also displayed some ideas that are still being tested or are in a very early conceptual phase. A driverless shuttle picked up guests at the event from the dock where they arrived via water taxi and took them a short distance to the building. Royal Caribbean is testing the vehicle for possible use at ports.

And a futuristic stateroom featured screens in the ceiling, floor, and walls that displayed images of the water below, sky above, and scenery outside. The idea was that live cameras would stream the images to the video screens. Executives said some of the ideas in that room could end up in future cabins.

Royal Caribbean is also testing a dining concept where passengers strap on a virtual reality headset — the scene changes with each course — and grab what looks like cartoonish bite-sized blobs of food to eat.

Cruise industry expert Stewart Chiron, CEO of CruiseGuy.com, said he thought the virtual reality elements stood out.

“Passengers being able to prescreen destinations and plan excursions in advance will be a huge help,” he said. “Virtual reality dining was very interesting. Being transported to an exotic destination and dine digitally was very novel.”

A Slow Rollout

The basic version of the app is expected to be in use of 13 percent of the 48-ship fleet by the end of this year, half of the ships by the end of next year and the entire fleet by the end of 2019. Fain said the app will be frequently updated.

He said the company was taking an “expanding universe” approach to introducing new technology, continually improving the product rather than a “big bang” strategy of perfecting the product before announcing it.

“The beauty of the big bang approach is it’s all there at once but you can never get it right the first time,” Fain said. “So we follow the expanding universe approach. We bring it out  slowly.”

Tim Klauda, vice president of product for digital experience, described the philosophy as “baby steps to awesome.”

The cruise company has been taking those steps for years already. In 2014, Royal Caribbean International launched what it described as “the world’s first Smartship,” Quantum of the Seas. That included many features that are being taken to a new level now, including luggage tracking, virtual balconies, and wristbands that unlocked doors and bought items.

Cruise Line Competition

And Royal Caribbean is not the only cruise company thinking about these issues. Larger rival Carnival Corp. announced in January at the electronics show CES that it was unveiling near wearable tech to allow for greater customization and personalization. The Ocean Medallion is meant to serve as a locating device, room key, and credit card substitute — and to generate data about each passenger’s preferences.

The first previews of the technology were supposed to be shown off to media this week, but a full launch on the initial ship has been delayed until early 2018. Instead, the disc-sized gadgets will be introduced first to one group of staterooms, with more added later.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the world’s third-largest cruise company, has not sketched out its tech plans, though the CEO hinted recently that news is forthcoming.

Steve Wieczynski, an analyst with Stifel, asked about the issue during the company’s quarterly earnings call.

“When we look at your competitors, it seems they’ve been getting more aggressive on the technology side of things, trying to improve the customer experience both the fore-boarding and then post-boarding, also trying to capture more of that onboard spend,” he said. “Where do you guys stand in terms of trying to keep up with your competitors? We haven’t really heard any big over-the-top type of announcement from you guys, but I assume you’re not sitting back either and not doing anything on that front.”

Norwegian president and CEO Frank Del Rio said everyone should stay tuned.

“I’m pleased to see what others are doing,” he said. “We will be announcing our strategy very, very soon.”

Del Rio said the company has had success with tech-centered innovations for experiences on ships, including virtual reality games and a racetrack on the new Norwegian Joy.

“We expect to engage and be competitive — and like I said, stay tuned for more,” he said.

Fain offered a nod to earlier technology that has inspired cruise lines: Disney’s MagicBand.

“It was really quite special,” he said. “It was a big advance.”

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean have hired former Disney employees to work on their digital innovations, including Klauda, who was vice president of digital design at Disney Parks & Resorts.

“We’re all chasing the same thing, which is an amazing guest experience,” Klauda said.

Capturing The Next Generation

Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz said in an interview that the tech she saw from Royal Caribbean reminds her of what Carnival has been talking about, just in app form.

“The question is do you want your phone or do you not want to bring your phone with you?” she said.

One big difference between the two projects is that Royal Caribbean is using an open-source model that revolves around an app, and Carnival is installing significant hardware in the form of cables, sensors, readers, and portals.

“For both of them, what it really means is you get to continue to capture consumer behavior and sort of toggle the onboard spend behavior,” she said.

“Everybody’s trying to be more relevant,” Katz said. “If you can get the next millennial on, they maybe stick with the brand longer. You have 40 years of cruising ahead for that cohort.”

In a note to investors, William Blair leisure analyst Sharon Zackfia pointed out that millennials will be in their “prime years for family cruising” by 2020.

“We believe Royal’s digital strategy should position the company well to attract the new- to-cruise market, particularly millennials, given its social connectivity and mobile platform,” she wrote.

For Chiron, the cruise expert and broker, the updates sounded like a good way to streamline an experience that can still have too much friction.

“New technologies will simplify cruising and remove unnecessary delays which includes boarding ships, making purchases and waiting in lines,” he said. “Definitely a step in the right direction.”

Photo Credit: At an event last week in Brooklyn, Royal Caribbean Cruises showed off an app that lets users order a drink and have it delivered to wherever they are. It's one of a series of tech advances that the cruise company is rolling out. Diane Bondareff / Invision for Royal Caribbean Cruises