Magic medallions, flying spies: the travel news

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If you’re a baby boomer, you know that the travel experience ain’t what it used to be. In some ways it’s worse — think, airport security lines. But in other ways, it’s better, and a lot of that is due to technology: online booking, ubiquitous wi-fi, Skype … These things can make travelling a lot less stressful, and there’s always more on the way.

So I thought I’d share some of the newest technological marvels to come down the pipe, including a couple of gee-whiz items that sound like they came from a Buck Rogers movie. As well, there’s a glimpse at the darker side of travel tech, that would be more at home in a Jason Bourne flick.

The amazing Ocean Medallion

There’s a whole new world of connectivity waiting for cruisers, according to Carnival Cruise Lines. At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the cruise conglomerate unveiled a small medallion it says will revolutionize the cruising experience.

Called the Ocean Medallion, the device acts as yourcruise ship docked link to a ship-wide online system that lets you get personalized service through your smart phone, tablet or laptop, or from video terminals spread throughout the ship. It can be worn like a watch or a pendant, or carried in your pocket.

According to Carnival, once you’ve loaded your personal information onto the medallion, you’ll be able to board the ship without standing in long lines and filling out forms. You’ll also be able to reserve excursions, specialty dining and other services directly, through the ship’s Ocean Compass digital concierge. You can order food and drinks, and have ship staff deliver them to you wherever and whenever you want.

The Ocean Medallion and the concierge service are designed to create a more personal cruising experience. With today’s new mega-ships, cruising can seem more like a mass migration. So cruise lines are trying to eliminate the lineups where possible. I’d expect other lines to launch similar programs.

The Ocean Medallion will have its trial run on the Regal Princess, followed by the Royal Princess and Caribbean Princess in early 2018. Later, you’ll likely see it on other lines owned by Carnival, which include Carnival, Holland America, Cunard, Seabourn, Costa and P&O.

Talking hotel rooms

Remember those scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronaut has a conversation with the space ship computer? That day may be coming soon for hotel guests.

An Aloft Hotel in Boston has become the first to offer rooms that are truly interactive and voice-activated. Say “lights on”hotel bed while sitting in your room, and the lights will come on. Say “turn up the temperature to 70 degrees” and the heating system will adjust. You can ask for the time or weather, or stream internet content on the television.

The feature works using Apple’s “Siri” system. Guests first have to teach the system their speech patterns. Once they do, they can ask it questions, like, “Where’s the best pizza joint in this neighbourhood?” And Siri will reply with a recommendation.

The Aloft Hotel has 10 rooms equipped with the voice system, and charges $75 U.S. for the service. But if they can do it using Apple technology available to everyone, it likely won’t be long before other hotel chains do it too. Maybe some day you won’t have to struggle with that wonky thermostat in your room.

High-resolution flying

Airline entertainment systems have come a long way since the days when we all squinted at a tiny screen hung from the ceiling. But they could be taking another quantum leap in the near future.

United Airlines is trying out a new entertainment system that delivers “an immersive 360-degree experience and side-by-side 3D”, using wrap-around headsets. The headsets work with content that’s streamed via wi-fi, but they can also plug into any device with an HDMI connection for movies, games and other content. And they promise top-notch audio quality.

No word on when or if the service will be offered to United passengers. But the headsets, called the Avegant Glyph, are already available. So if you get one now, you can bring your own when the airline starts charging for them.

Spies in the sky

Finally, a disturbing note for anyone who uses a cellphone on an airplane. According to a report in France’s Le Monde planes at Schipholnewspaper, both the U.S. and U.K. security services have been eavesdropping on cellphone conversations and texts from airline passengers since 2005.

According to the report, the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters are able to intercept cellphone calls from most planes flying over Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The plane only needs to be flying above 10,000 feet, and in range of a communications satellite. Secret receiving stations on the ground then intercept the signal.

Even turning on a common GSM phone or a Blackberry alerts the security services, the report says. They can then use the passenger list and the flight number to identify the caller. La Presse says the information comes from documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

I guess being spied on is becoming a normal part of modern life, and if you’re just calling home or contacting your hotel, who would care? But still … maybe there’s a good reason phones have an airplane mode.

 

Technology has revolutionized travel in a number of ways over the past few decades. And if companies are offering things like the Ocean Medallion and talking hotel rooms today, imagine what they’ll be doing in five or 10 years. Hopefully, those advances won’t come with more nasty surprises, like those airborne eavesdroppers.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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