BLE, NFC Bring Concierge Service to Carnival Cruises

By Claire Swedberg

The Ocean Medallion wearable device will enable future cruise-line passengers to access rooms, place orders and receive personalized service, simply based on their location aboard a cruise ship and their pattern of behavior.

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Passenger cruise company Carnival Corp. is planning the launch of a new automated service that combines Near Field Communication (NFC) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technologies to provide visitors with a more personalized cruise-line experience. The Ocean Medallion is a wearable device that features both NFC and BLE functionalities, in order to provide guests with private room access, services and content based on their location within a cruise ship, when used with an app or cruise-line touch screen.

The device also enables the company’s management and personnel to know where particular passengers are located at any given time, so that they can optimize their own services—such as knowing when a stateroom is unoccupied and ready for cleaning, for instance, or locating a passenger who requested a drink. Beginning late this year, passengers on board the Regal Princess, a cruise ship owned by Carnival brand Princess Cruises, will be the first users of the Medallion Class Ocean Vacations service that employs the Ocean Medallion technology.

Carnival’s John Padgett

The system operates on Carnival’s Experience Innovation Operating System (xIOS) software network, which manages BLE- and NFC-based data throughout each cruise ship. Passengers can access content based on their current location and history, via a digital concierge portal known as the Ocean Compass, which they can access on their own smart devices running the Carnival app, or on kiosks and touch screens located onboard the ship or in home ports. Employees also carry tablet devices to view the Ocean Compass data related to passengers within their vicinity.

Each participating passenger will carry or wear an Ocean Medallion. The device was developed as an accessory to bring passengers seamless service, according to John Padgett, Carnival’s chief experience and innovation officer.

The system will consist of 7,000 sensors with built-in NFC readers and BLE beacon receivers installed throughout the ship. Each reader and receiver will receive communications from Ocean Medallions worn or carried by passengers wherever they move around the vessel. The Ocean Medallion contains 13.56 MHz NFC RFID technology, as well as BLE to enable multiple services. NFC ensures secure short-range reads, while the BLE technology offers a longer range to help users access location-based content.

After booking their cruise reservations, passengers are invited to receive the wearable medallion. If they opt to use the device, they are also invited to provide information about their preferences, such as foods and activities, so that information can be stored along with their reservation. They can also supply account information related to social-media networks, such as Facebook, to automatically link cruise activity information to their account. The unique ID number in a medallion’s BLE beacon and NFC transponder is then linked to the corresponding individual’s information in the xIOS software. Carnival etches the passenger’s name on the medallion and ships it to that individual prior to the cruise. The passenger can then download the app, enabling him or her to view content related to the voyage.

The BLE technology in the medallion transmits a beacon signal in the same way that Bluetooth beacons traditionally transmit an identifier to Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. In that way, Padgett says, the Ocean system turns the typical BLE deployment on its head. Instead of the BLE receivers being in the hands of users—typically, a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or tablet—in this case the receivers are stationary, with users carrying the BLE hardware that transmits data to those beacons.

When a passenger arrives at the ship, that person’s medallion transmits a unique ID that is received by BLE sensors, and staff members can view on a tablet who is arriving based on those transmissions. This makes the receiving process faster for passengers, the company reports, since they don’t need to provide tickets or identification. Upon arriving at the assigned guest stateroom, the passenger encounters a digital display installed at the door. The display comes with a built-in NFC device and Beacon receiver.

Once the device confirms that individual’s identity based on the ID transmission, the system automatically unlocks the door while also greeting the guest by name on the screen. The BLE transmission enables cruise-line personnel to know whether passengers are in or out of their rooms. That information allows the staff to identify the best time to service a particular room. In addition, passengers can use the app to set their room’s requested temperature or lighting conditions. Each time they access their stateroom door, the room’s settings will then automatically adjust to their needs.

In addition, the BLE technology enables visitors to find their way around the large ship with the help of the Carnival app. The beacons throughout the vessel receive transmissions from a guest’s medallion and forward that data to the software, which pinpoints that individual’s location. The passenger can then open the app to view his or her location, as well as indicate where he or she would like to go, such as to a specific restaurant, or to view a family member’s location. The app then displays the wayfinding instructions to connect that individual and the desired destination.

The system also tracks a passenger’s behavior aboard the ship, so as to better personalize future service. For instance, if a guest frequently orders a favorite drink at the bar, the software stores that data, enabling a bartender to view on a tablet device when that passenger has arrived at the bar, including the individual’s name and preferred drinks. When the guest pays for the beverage, staff members can use the NFC technology to gain a short secure transmission, thereby ensuring that the correct individual is being charged. That guest also typically would provide a password to authorize the charge.

“Sensors are installed throughout the ship’s public spaces,” Padgett says, “as well as in multiple points in staterooms.” A total of 75 miles of cable connect the sensors to the back-end software.

“One of the primary benefits of the Ocean Medallion is that all experience interactions are completely frictionless—no tapping, touching or swiping required,” Padgett states. “When a guest’s Ocean Medallion connects with the [Ocean Experience platform], all of their desires and needs can be anticipated. It’s intuitive, but not disruptive—personal, but not invasive.”

The quarter-sized medallion weighs 1.8 ounces, is waterproof and has a battery life of about a month, Padgett says. The cruise line declines to name specific hardware providers; however, he adds, the company uses “industry-standard NFC and BLE components” in the proprietary system.

The system, with the hardware network designed by engineering and design consulting firm Nytec, is not slated to go fully live until November 2017, Padgett says, at which time each guest booked aboard a Regal Princess cruise will be offered an Ocean Medallion. Following that deployment, guests traveling on the company’s Royal Princess and Caribbean Princess cruise ships will be offered the same technology starting early next year.

This is not Padgett’s first foray into “friction-free” technology. He was instrumental in the development of Walt Disney World‘s MagicBand wristband used in Disney hotel rooms and parks (see MagicBands Bring Convenience, New Services to Walt Disney World). The bracelet provides access to rooms and attractions, as well as enabling purchases. Disney can also use the band to manage data regarding queue length and the amount of time visitors spend waiting at attractions.

Royal Caribbean has also employed RFID technology to monitor individuals aboard its vessels (see World’s Largest Cruise Ship Launches RFID-based Passenger-Tracking System, Cruise Ship Fights Fire With RFID, RFID Sets Sail With Quantum of the Seas and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas Adopts Assa Abloy RFID Wristbands, Locks).