AI On Cruise Ships: The Fascinating Ways Royal Caribbean Uses Facial Recognition And Machine Vision

Editor’s note: This is a re-post of an article from Forbes.

In the travel industry, the primary use cases for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies revolve around improving customer experiences.

Chatbots, in particular, have proven popular across this industry, with natural language processing (NLP) applied to the challenges of dealing with customer inquiries and providing personalized travel experiences.

Alongside this, recommendation engines power the most popular online travel portals such as Expedia and Trivago, combining customer data with information on millions of hotel vacancies and airline flights worldwide.

However, when it comes to operators, compared to other industries such as finance or healthcare, the travel industry as a whole is at an early stage when it comes to organization-wide deployment of smart, self-learning machine technology.

One industry leader that is bucking this trend, though, is cruise operator Royal Caribbean Cruises. In recent years, the world’s second-largest cruise operator has put AI to use to solve several problems.

As far as customer experience is concerned, the overriding goal has been to remove the “friction” often experienced. Until recently, this was seen as an inevitable consequence of having to check in a large number of passengers at a single departure time, rather than deal with a continuous flow of guests arriving and departing, as at a hotel or resort.

The company’s SVP of digital, Jay Schneider, tells me “Our goal was to allow our customers to get ‘from car to bar’ in less than 10 minutes.

“Traditionally it would take 60 to 90 minutes to go through the process of boarding a ship, and as a result, people didn’t feel like they were on vacation until day two – we wanted to give them their first day back.”

A vital tool in achieving this aim was the deployment of facial recognition technology. It uses computer-vision equipped cameras that can recognize travelers as they board, cutting down the need for verifying identity documents and travel passes manually.

This could have been done by providing customers with wearables such as a wrist band; however, the decision was taken to eliminate the need for external devices by using biometric identifiers – faces.

“We wanted to get people on their vacations as quickly as possible, and we didn’t want to have to ship every passenger a wearable – we want you to use the wearable you already have, which is your face.”

Computer vision-equipped cameras are built into the terminals that customers interact with as they board, and sophisticated algorithms match the visual data they capture with photographic identification which is submitted before their departure date.

AI doesn’t stop improving customer experience once guests are on board. Several other initiatives are designed to make passengers more comfortable or help them make the most of their time. These range from personalized recommendations for how they should spend their time on board, to monitoring and managing footfall as people move around the boat and queue to make use of services.

These monitoring systems are also powered by computer vision, but rather than recognizing individual faces, they monitor the build-up of bodies as passengers move about, allowing congestion to be detected and dealt with where necessary.

The technology for this application was built in partnership with Microsoft, and involved retro-fitting existing CCTV cameras with smart technology. This avoided the need for ships to be taken out of action while the entire camera network was upgraded with computer vision cameras.

“We have massive ships – we didn’t want to take them out of service, gut them and put sensors in, so we worked with Microsoft to understand how we could leverage our existing and somewhat antiquated CCTV cameras.

“Microsoft was a great partner … we threw our data scientists at the problem, and we’ve been able to take old cameras, as well as fisheye cameras, and detect humans through the use of AI.

“There’s a ton of use cases – it gives us information on things like table turnover times in restaurants, and we’re going to start using it from this summer to alert crew members when lines are backing up.”

This will mean crew can be redeployed in real time to wherever their services are in demand.

Another initiative is aimed at cutting down on food that goes to waste on board cruise liners. With 65,000 plates of food served daily aboard the vessel Symphony of the Seas, AI helps make decisions about how much food should be stocked to ensure guests don’t go hungry while keeping wastage to a minimum.

“We like to think we’re probably the most sustainability-friendly cruise line – and one of the things we’ve focused on when deploying AI is working towards our goals of improving sustainability. Outside of the cost savings, and improved freshness of the food we serve, it has sustainability benefits … we’ve seen a reduction in food waste as a result of this pilot,” says Schneider.

The most recent application – which began trials just weeks ago – is Royal Caribbean’s chatbot, styled as a virtual concierge, which allows passengers to ask questions about their voyage, destinations, or how they should spend their time on board.

“The whole idea, again, is to pull people out of lines – we don’t want passengers waiting in line at guest services to get questions answered, we want them to be able to get the information they need right away,” Schneider tells me.

The chatbot employs NLP and machine learning to understand what the most commonly asked questions are, and become more efficient at providing personalized answers. It uses a “human-in-the-loop” model, meaning that if it can’t work out what a customer wants, a human customer service agent is paged into the conversation. The NLP algorithms are then capable of learning how they could have tackled the question, by monitoring the human agent’s response.

With this, as with its other AI initiatives, Royal Caribbean follows a model of carefully monitored, small-scale trial deployments, before individual initiatives are put into organization-wide use.

Schneider tells me “We believe we get the best results with this method … test, adjust, scale … rather than ‘ready, fire, aim’ – which the rest of our industry seems to do! So, once we’ve carefully tested it and we’re sure it’s ready to go, we will scale it.”

When it comes to gathering data, cruise operators like Royal Caribbean are in a unique position, as they effectively function as hotels, food and beverage providers, supply chain and logistics operations, shipping operators and entertainment and gaming companies, all rolled into one.

This means customer journeys can be tracked and data gathered across all of these functions, enabling a holistic approach to data-driven customer service.

“As you can imagine,” Schneider says, “there are any number of opportunities … we’ve focused on yield management in cabin occupancy … the list goes on.

“We’re focused on testing, adjusting and scaling examples of where we can use AI to change the customer and the crew experience. Not everything has been successful, but the vast majority have shown early signs of success, and we’ve been extremely thrilled with the results so far.”

Things to Consider When Expanding Your Network

This blog will discuss how you can prepare for IT growth as your business expands.

Your IT Network: A Careful Balance

All businesses seek growth, but in our experience it’s surprising how many are unprepared to handle increased burdens on their technology and the networks that support it. Network capacity and capabilities should be able to handle the needs of the present while keeping costs under control but flexible enough to be able to expand to take advantage of opportunities in the future.

When a business has a forward-thinking IT strategy, it’s better equipped to handle steady growth and sudden changes in the market. This is why small and medium businesses call on IT consulting experts like MOBIZ to move their networks where they need to be at such a crucial time. So much focus, resources, and planning are spent on other parts of the business that a trusted IT partner like MOBIZ can help alleviate additional capacity while also establishing a solid plan for the future.

Before you undertake any network expansion or revision project, here are some questions MOBIZ will help you answer:

Why Are You Expanding?

This may be the easiest to answer, but it’s extremely important because it will define the approach. Have you experienced sudden growth beyond projections? Are you expanding into new markets and new locations? Do you need to replace older equipment that is beyond its useful life? By answering these questions, we can help you turn a weakness into a strength

How Well Will Your Current Wireless Network Handle Increased Load?

Adding users and additional computers also adds pressure to your computer network. At the beginning of any engagement, MOBIZ puts your network through a number of rigorous tests that are proven to give an accurate measurement of the exact capabilities of your network, where it’s weak, and what needs to be done to further develop and improve it.

Who Will Need Access to the New Network?

Access permissions are important for businesses that handle sensitive information. Compliance is essential, but even if essential information isn’t regulated, any network audit takes control and access into account. Certain folders or passwords may need to be restricted and file ownership processes may need to be reviewed if employees move to different departments or leave the company altogether. Network security needs to be assessed and improved accordingly.

What Programs and Applications Will Be Critical for Future Growth?

Some applications you’ve been using may have been chosen solely on price. These kinds of temporary measures can restrict growth, especially when inadequate applications have been accepted as the norm. On the other hand, there is no reason to overpay for programs you don’t need. This is where a technology expert can help you assess what you use, how you use it, and where it will be in the next few years.

Do You Have a BYOD Policy?

Companies that allow employees to use their own phones, tablets, and laptops for work find it can make expanding capacity easier and cheaper. But this can also create serious document security issues if an employee loses their device or if they leave the company. While informal policies may work in the beginning, a formal bring your own device (BYOD) policy that is continually reviewed and updated helps answer crucial questions about how these devices and the sensitive information that is on them should be handled.

How MOBIZ Network Consulting Can Evolve to Managed Services

The final question is who will manage your new network, and this is where MOBIZ can provide the best value. As consultants, we’ve solved network issues for dozens of businesses at the enterprise level, expanding their global reach and developing a tool that will help them build measured, sustained growth. With added capacity comes added responsibilities, and we’re here to help manage and monitor your networks long past the initial project.

Benefit From Our Experience

There are plenty of things to worry about when guiding your business—your technology shouldn’t be one of them. Call us today for more information about MOBIZ and to schedule a network assessment. Our thorough IT environment assessment is a strategic, top-down picture of how your business works and how technology is used to complete your most important business processes. Our technicians can get to the root of any issue and provide solutions that last, not just temporary fixes.