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MSC Cruises - the world’s largest privately-owned cruise liner - will launch its latest vessel next month, promising to showcase investments in a range of digital technologies. Guests and crew members onboard the MSC Meraviglia will have access services that rely on mobile apps, facial recognition, IoT beacons and wearable technology, all aimed at improving customer experience.

It is part of a 20 million investment in technology for two ships - the Meraviglia and the Bellissima, which is set to launch in 2019 - and the culmination of a three-year process to upgrade the company’s digital services, according to Luca Pronzanti, MSC’s chief business innovation officer.

Here are some of the innovations MSC is introducing to its vessels - as well as some of the challenges faced when running IT on what Pronzanti describes as a “small city on the sea”…

Wearables, mobile apps and beacons

Onboard the Meraviglia there are more than 3,000 passive beacons and over 500 beacon controllers. Used in combination with smartphone apps, the beacons will support a range of services, such as guiding guests around the vessel.

“Through this kind of infrastructure we will enable adults to find their direction within the ship,” says Prozanti, speaking to Computerworld UK at Aruba Atmosphere conference in Paris today. “So they will be guided, Google-like but not Google Maps, to find the restaurant, cabins, venues and other points of interest. You just type and say you want to go there and you will be guided around the ship.”

In future, beacons could enable shops to provide offers to nearby guests. “The way we engage with the guests should be personalised and geo-localised. In the future, guests passing by in front of a shop will get a message relevant for them, by means of all the beacons, which will be able to recognise you are there.”

Guests on the ship will be able to use wearable devices sold by MSC for a variety of purposes. For example, NFC enabled wearables will enable adult passengers to “open their cabin, embark and disembark from the vessels, perform transactions onboard and so on”.

Additionally, parents will be able to see where their children are, using the bluetooth low energy (BLE) wearables.

IT on the high seas - not all plain sailing

Pronzanti says there have been some significant - and quite unusual - challenges in fitting the ship with its networking systems.

“We need to consider that this is a ship sailing into the ocean, so from an infrastructure perspective everything has to be [kept] local on the ship. That is why we have two data centres on the ship, why we have all the sensors on the ship, why we need to store all the information - the digital content, the video the pictures - on the ship.”

One specific example is installing beacons. “A ship is made of steel, and it is made of steel in different decks. So when we were planning and designing the installation of the beacons, we had quite a hard time because we had to fine-tune the planning to take into consideration all the different barriers and bottlenecks we had on the ship."

As the Meraviglia was still being built, the team tested new services on its existing fleet of ships. "We realised for example that the behaviour of the signal of the beacon was totally different in the swimming pool with the water and without the water. It is incredible. It is something that if you plan on paper you say 'I’ll put one beacon here and one beacon here'. Then you go there with the instruments and the tools and you test and it doesn't work. Or you say it works in one condition but not so well in another.

“This is why we had to work with HPE and Aruba to [deploy] the network on board and design the infrastructure to be able to support all of these new technologies coming on board the vessel.”

Next generation of technology - robotics and VR

The process that stretches from designing to launching a new vessel can take around three or four years. Part of Pronzanti’s job is to predict which technologies the firm’s next generation of ships will require. To this end, it partners with not only large companies but also universities and startup incubators to keep up with some of the latest technology developments.

In future, he expects that virtual and augmented reality will play a role.

“So we are working on virtual reality and augmented reality, as a way of providing different experiences to our guests, in comparison to not only other cruise lines but to a broader extent to the hospitality segment,” he says.

Robotics is another area of interest.

“We have been working for a year on a project related to humanoid [robotics]. We have had to set priorities so we had to postpone these to the next ship because we cannot afford to deploy everything on just one ship.

"We want to create a new experience on board by enabling an interaction between the humanoid and humans. We are evaluating a couple of ideas, which are still confidential, around how we could deploy this kind of entertainment aboard our vessels."