IT helps passengers, crew navigate gigantic Oasis of the Seas cruise ship

Digital signage, facial recognition, handheld computers and RFID are some of the technologies used on board

MIAMI - Approaching Oasis of the Seas from the parking lot of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and then entering the ship, you are overtaken by its size.

Almost 1,200 feet long (360 meters) and 210 feet wide, and rising 213 feet from the water line, it is the world's largest cruise ship -- about five times the size of the Titanic.

It features 16 passenger decks, 24 passenger elevators and more than 2,700 rooms. At full capacity, the 225,282-ton ship can carry about 6,300 passengers and 2,100 staffers.

Amenities include a park with more than 12,000 plants, an 82-feet long zip line in the open air activity area, a jogging track that is almost half a mile, a shop promenade worthy of a shopping mall, more than 20 swimming pools and whirlpools, multiple restaurants and a theater that sits more than 1,300 people.

Royal Caribbean International knew its ship had to be designed it in a way that its size didn't overwhelm passengers and staffers, and decided early on that IT would play a big part in addressing this challenge.

In a recent, exclusive tour of the ship, Royal Caribbean IT officials showed the IDG News Service how the company is using tools like RFID, facial recognition and handheld wireless devices for a variety of purposes, including emergency responses, food safety, point-of-sale (POS) transactions and passenger service. You can watch an IDG video of part of the tour, here.

"We were keenly aware that we were building the biggest ship in the world and we wanted to make sure the experience nonetheless was an intimate one, and eliminate any sense that you are on a massive ship," Santiago Abraham, vice president of information technology programs at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, parent company of Royal Caribbean International.

To that end, the ship, which had its maiden voyage in December 2009, is divided into different "neighborhoods," as opposed to being a monolithic structure, and features many small restaurants, rather than a few gigantic dinner halls, for example.

It is critical to help passengers find their way around this layout, so the ship has digital, interactive signs that people can use to access maps, get directions, see scheduled activities and even check in real-time the occupancy level of restaurants. The more than 300 touchscreen devices are the size of flat-screen televisions and are mounted on walls on the ship's corridors.

"The digital signage helps our guests navigate the ship," Abraham said of the system, whose touchscreen devices use Windows 7 on the front end and tap SQL Server and other Windows server products on the back end. "You see guests interacting with it on a pretty continual basis very effectively."

Royal Caribbean's IT department also automated retail transactions and food inspections on board with PAR Technology terminals and tablets running software from Agilysys and the Windows Embedded OS.

With those systems, a food inspection round that would take five hours with paper-based logs and conventional thermometers is done instead in two hours with devices that have temperature probes and readers that scan RFID tags on food containers.

Meanwhile, waiters and salespeople are more mobile and order-taking and order-processing are faster, especially in the pool area, where orders can be beamed wirelessly to the bartenders.

The POS and food inspection data is instantly fed to back-end Microsoft SQL Server databases where it is automatically analyzed and acted upon, whether it's to replenish low inventory in a store or to order that a food container be discarded.

Oasis of the Seas also has a face-recognition system that automatically sorts photographs taken by on-board photographers into each passenger's digital folder. Thus, passengers can stop at any time by the ship's photography center and, using touchscreen computers, access their photos, which they can then purchase or discard. The face-recognition system matches photos to the headshot taken of passengers during their pre-boarding registration process and which goes in their Sea Pass ID card.

Passengers use this Sea Pass ID card for a variety of other purposes on board. For example, parents can configure their children's cards to specify which activities they can participate in. This simplifies the verification process for staffers in the pool and activity areas, who only need to swipe the cards in their POS terminals and see what a minor is and isn't allowed to do.

Also getting an IT improvement is the emergency system. Passengers are assigned to different meeting stations to which they must report in the case of an emergency. Now the ship staffers manning those stations have handheld Motorola devices running Windows Embedded OS with which they can quickly scan passengers as they arrive, and know in real time if someone is missing. It's from these stations that passengers would go to their assigned lifeboats, if necessary.

Oasis of the Seas has an IT staff on board, a network operating center and two redundant data centers.

From Microsoft's perspective, Royal Caribbean has achieved in Oasis of the Seas the "intelligent system" vision of the Windows Embedded products, in which client devices are used to gather data that is then stored on the back end and analyzed for operational improvements.

"It's about providing not only the client operating system in the edge devices, but also integrating with back end systems infrastructure so that you have the security and manageability that's critical for CIOs," said Barbara Edson, general manager of marketing and business development in the Microsoft Windows Embedded group.

Royal Caribbean continues to add technology advances to its fleet. By next summer, Oasis of the Seas will feature high-speed satellite-based broadband service from O3B Networks for passengers and staffers. The quality and speed of the connection will be similar to fiber-based services in homes and offices, according to the company.

Abraham said Royal Caribbean is very satisfied with the way the IT infrastructure in Oasis of the Seas helps passengers and staffers without being intrusive or complicated.

"We were trying to have technology help our guests in terms of their experience on board, whether it's boarding the ship, learning more about activities or planning their day, but we also didn't want to be 'in your face' with the technology, so it's all very embedded in a lot of different elements," Abraham said.

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