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Royal Caribbean's cruise of the future looks a lot like the present

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When I think of the ultimate future cruise ship, many things come to mind. Most of them borrowed from Star Trek, I'll admit. Holodecks, food replicators, staff in tight-fitting onesies -- that kinda thing. I'd also be willing to throw in some robot barmen, virtual balconies, apps and RFID trickery. This is 2014, not the 24th century after all. Lucky, then, that Royal Caribbean's self-proclaimed "smartship" -- Quantum of the Seas -- has all of the above (up to the barmen bit, not the replicators or holodeck). There was no boldly going anywhere just a short jaunt down the English Channel, but I took the chance anyway, to see what the future of cruising might look like.

Getting on the ship, however, took a little more than beaming up. And it happened very much on mother Earth. In Southampton, UK, to be precise -- where the famously ill-fated, but technologically pioneering Titanic also departed more than a hundred years earlier. But I tried not to think about that. When a jovial, tablet-wielding check-in woman asked for my ticket, I handed over my phone with the PDF barcode. My logic being that surely no one prints out anything in the future. But, apparently, in the present they do. Her nose wrinkled, and she shot me a look that said: "You need a print out."

There was no boldly going anywhere just a short jaunt down the English Channel ...

No bother though; she had a tablet (a Surface Pro 2, if you're wondering), and manually walked me through the check-in process. The annoying thing was that I'd gone through the exact same process at home the night before -- which took ages, but for some reason hadn't come through to their systems. I also had an actual ticket and barcode on my phone, which is just like a paper ticket, but on a screen. The attendant checked me in quickly enough, but I was asked for my printout a further two times before I boarded, one complete with a snarky comment about "printing it next time." Technically I did, it's just on my phone, dammit.

Quantum of the Seas stands 18 decks tall and measures over 1,100 feet, with a gross tonnage of more than 167,800. The 2,090 staterooms can house 4,180 guests, who are fed by 18 restaurants, and can enjoy onboard facilities such as indoor skydiving, a roller disco, numerous swimming pools and bumper cars along with a Broadway-style theater and "multidimensional" entertainment space called "Two70°." Royal also used computer modeling to give Quantum of the Seas a more efficient hull configuration and energy-saving engine design. I'm here for the pre-inaugural press demonstration before it sails off to New York to fill up on vacationers.

North Star lifts cruisers 300 feet above sea level.

Once safely on board, I got straight into the "future of cruising" by heading to my allocated room and accessing it with my RFID wristband (which Royal calls a "WOWband"). I won't lie; it did feel kinda "future-y." With bags dumped, I headed straight back out again, as I had a slot booked to ride "North Star." Or, as it transpired, the opportunity to stand inside it while stationary. This viewing capsule (shown above) is attached to an arm that lifts cruisers up into the air, 300 feet above sea level, offering 360-degree panoramas of the ship and its surroundings. That's in the future too, though. As I stood inside it, the engineers were still updating the software, so we weren't able to try it out. Someone commented that 360 degrees at sea will be, well, mostly sea -- but this craft is going to spend a lot of its time in the Caribbean, so I'm sure the views from there will beat the (admittedly sunny) vistas of Southampton's docks. Later in the voyage, North Star would send riders up in the air, but the line was permanently long, and I never did get a turn.

If the robot apocalypse looks at all like this -- one that starts with a perfect Negroni -- then I'd be OK with that.

While bummed about North Star, the big highlight for me was always going to be the robot barmen. I'd heard of Makr Shakr (the team behind them) before, as it has served drinks for Silicon Valley bigwigs like Google. Among the many watering holes and eateries down on deck 4 is where you'll find Bionic Bar -- home to servers B1-0 and N1-C (B10N1C, geddit?). If the robot apocalypse looks at all like this -- one that starts with a perfect Negroni -- then I'd be OK with that. Back on board, however, it wasn't really starting anything. Our bionic friends weren't working correctly, and kept tipping the cups off their stands. I was so eager to taste a robo-tini that I came back to the Bionic Bar frequently over the short trip. Every time, I'd find two or three engineers with their faces buried in laptops, huddled around the side of the robot bar. Alas, I never did see it shake (or stir) a vodka martini.

Even robot barmen can have an off day.

Once Bionic Bar is fully functional, the loyal duo will let you choose exactly the drink you want via touchscreens dotted around the bar. You'll be able to pick from a menu, or go off-list and make your own monstrosity masterpiece. They won't judge, though anyone reading the screen that displays your drink choice might. Once your order is taken, your place in the virtual line is shown on a video wall. The best news is that it takes about a minute to fix each drink -- no more waiting as the barkeep chats with other customers or colleagues. The Bionic Bar isn't just about the robots (though it mostly is); there's also a digital art installation (one of many around the ship) that constantly changes and evolves. It reminded me of those visualizations you get on Winamp or Windows Media Player -- it's nice, and ramps up the futuristic feel of the place. It would have been so much better with a robot-mixed old-fashioned in hand, though.

Digital art -- it's not even day 9 of the cruise.

Disappointed, and decidedly sober, I had the wherewithal to seek out some of the other techno-offerings on the ship. These included Royal Caribbean's suite of mobile apps, touchscreen hubs and the heavily pomped superfast internet, with more bandwidth than all other cruise liners in the world combined, the marketing material gloats. This is not just a tick-list feature, either. Your traditional snowbird clientele might be more than happy to spend a week soaking up UVA rays on deck, but the younger crowd Caribbean's pursuing with this ship wants to remain connected -- even while on vacation. However, the connection proved to be a little flakey while we cruised down the English Channel. In the communal areas, it was passable for email and light use, but any time I headed back to my cabin, it was pretty much game over. If this is what snowbirds expect from high-speed internet, no wonder they're by the pool.

If this is what snowbirds expect from high-speed internet, no wonder they're by the pool.

The onboard internet relies on low-orbit satellites provided by O3b Networks and, along with North Star and the robots at the Bionic Bar, it wasn't fully working for our voyage. On this occasion, there wasn't much Royal Caribbean could do about it, as there's no satellite for the UK right now, while the ones servicing the Caribbean are apparently ready. This meant the connection I experienced was actually very much akin to the type you get on all those other cruise liners -- i.e., pretty slow.

This was a shame, too, because Royal provides a cool little concierge app that lets you book shows, restaurants, rides on North Star and more. I used it to book seats for the onboard performance of Mamma Mia (which was surprisingly good, holding its own compared to the London West End show), and these activities were added into a personal agenda, accessible through the app (when WiFi permitted). Before I caught the show though, I snuck back to see if the Bionic Bar was up and running again -- it wasn't. Instead, I went to the ship's high-tech entertainment space, Two70°, for a less bionic, but successfully fixed pre-show cocktail. When it comes to vinyl versus MP3, I can argue either side. A cold, refreshing champagne and blackberry foam versus an empty glass, though, was no contest.

The WiFi may have been poor, but you can access your digital itinerary via onboard tablets.

Two70° has many things going for it -- not just the stemmed glass in my hand, which you can pay for with your WOWband, of course. It's primarily a cabaret bar with 270-degree views, hence the name. The party piece here was actually more robots. This time, instead of stirring cocktails, they hold large LCD screens. The idea is that the six large displays can be moved around dynamically as part of a show (circus acts and dance crews weave beneath them), a standalone performance or just for visual effect. They can even be aligned to simply form one huge display. The reality, at least in the demo I saw, was more like something you'd expect to see in the center of a shopping mall: moving screens showing a bespoke CGI video. Come back to Two70° at night, however, and you'll see a much more impressive show, as each of the large windows facing out to sea is covered to form one giant projection screen. It reminded me of a mini IMAX cinema, just with less Mount Everest, and more cabaret visuals.

Screens are a common feature on the Quantum of the Seas (there are huge ones everywhere), and the following morning, with my favorite ABBA tune, "SOS," still ringing in my head, I ventured into the bowels of the ship to find the "virtual balconies." All the rooms on the exterior of the ship have real balconies, but if your dwelling is internal, you're going to miss out on those all-important sea views. Royal Caribbean came up with a solution: a door-sized screen that shows a live feed from the opposite side of the ship (complete with ocean sounds). I won't lie; it was a bit disappointing. The image was incredibly washed out, making it almost impossible to see where the water ends and the skyline starts. I asked if there were contrast controls, but only on/off and mute were available on the remote. It's definitely a nice idea, and, like a mirror, it made the room feel less claustrophobic, but it didn't look nearly as nice as the brochure would have you believe.

Can you tell which is the real balcony?

By lunchtime on the second day, we were already heading back to Southampton. Our little jaunt took us down to Lizard Point (the southernmost part of Great Britain), and while it had been smooth sailing, the gentle listing of this 1,141-foot ship had begun to blend with last night's champagne and the morning's buffet in horrible ways. I remembered an on-staff photographer snapping my picture at some point over the previous evening, and decided to zigzag (in the opposite rhythm of the ship) to the Quantum's self-service area to buy some prints. Royal has rows of tablets and touchscreens set up so you can browse (and purchase) any pictures that roaming photographers might have taken of you during your trip -- like a floating version of a theme park gift shop. Mine was pretty good, but it made my beard look way more ginger than I'd like to admit.

So, what does the future of cruising look like? Currently, a lot like the present.

Finding my picture was, not surprisingly, very easy. Your WOWband will usually pull them up and, if not, you can drill down by location or time. These WOWbands aren't just about parting you with your money, though they will do a lot of that; they also let you perform other, more pedestrian, but very useful, tasks. When I booked the tickets for that evening show, I did it through the app on my phone. But, what if you *gasp* don't have a smartphone? Or, if that internet is still acting up? Royal Caribbean has laid out an area with tablets and RFID readers where you can just walk up, tap in and book. My favorite use for the RFID bands, though? Opening bathroom doors in public spaces. No need to even touch that last, grim, handle on your way out. Just tap the point on the wall, and open sesame. Honestly, it's genius.

Tapping in will take you straight to any photos of you (to buy).

By the time the Isle of Wight was in view, I had checked in on B1-0 and N1-C one more time -- still no dice. I did, however, locate an Xbox One lounge (complete with five huge LCD TVs). Sadly, there were no games to be played. North Star had stopped hoisting people up into the air, and there was a general sense of winding down. The weather had turned, and Southampton greeted us with a much more somber tone compared to its cheery send-off. I don't think it's symbolic; it's more representative of the November climate on the UK's south coast. Either way, solid, if not dry land beckoned, and with one last swipe of the WOWband for checkout, I was back at the coach stop.

So, what does the future of cruising look like? Currently, a lot like the present. Mostly with more screens, an app and a few interesting novelties. And that's okay. Novelty is something that should appeal to many people while on vacation. It's no secret that cruises have a reputation for appealing to an older audience, so adding technology into the mix is an obvious way to start breaking that association. Not because seniors can't use tech of course, because they can. Rather, it shows the time-honored cruise format isn't impervious to progress. It's just a shame that the future still needs a little work.

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