Technology is expanding the ways operators can keep passengers informed and entertained but the maritime environment brings its own challenges
The infotainment market is becoming ever more sophisticated. Passengers accustomed to having information and entertainment at their fingertips on land expect the same while at sea, and whether operating ferries or cruise vessels, operators need to factor this demand into their offerings if they are to keep customers coming back and develop new business.
Porsgrunn, Norway-based Baze Technology produces an internet protocol television (IPTV) system specifically tailored for the maritime sector, BazePort. Chairman Thorstein Rinker discussed with PST what is driving the trend toward more sophisticated infotainment packages, the latest innovations in this area and what kind of packages audiences are demanding.
Mr Rinker cites the example of a package delivered to Irish Ferries for luxury cruise ferry WB Yeats, which entered service in January 2019 and operates on the Dublin-Holyhead route.
“On a vessel like that we will deliver anything that has to do with entertainment and information, meaning that we give them software that’s running on set-top boxes and servers connected to TV sets,” says Mr Rinker.
“More than 500 cabins on that vessel will have a TV, and that TV is controlled by our BasePort IPTV solution.”
But it is not only in-cabin entertainment that can be handled via BasePort, Mr Rinker added. “They will have digital signage screens around the vessel, showcasing products they want to upsell,” he said, noting that this can be used to promote restaurants or offers in onboard shops.
Content such as info channels, portals, information bullets, promotions and entertainment can be pushed out to this system from the shoreside via a web portal, Mr Rinker said, meaning Irish Ferries’ Dublin office can push updates out live even while the vessel is in transit.
As well as accessing content via onboard TV sets and digital signage, passengers can also access it via their own devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers using a web browser-based app.
Mr Rinker explained that an issue the industry has faced for some time is that of backwards compatibility. If operators purchase an expensive infotainment system, they want to know that it will be supported and fit-for-purpose for customers’ needs for a long time. BazePort remedy this by building backwards compatibility into both software and hardware. “It doesn’t matter which version of our set-top box you have installed, what I make today as software will work on that setup as well,” he said.
Another key element is customisability. Clients in different markets have different needs and budgets, Mr Rinker said, noting that a ropax client in the Mediterranean will have a very different approach to an operator in the Irish Sea.
BazePort 7, the latest version of Baze Technology’s software, incorporates an updated statistics module. This allows operators to drill down into data and get an exact overview on usage, including not just installed hardware such as TV sets, but also personal entertainment devices. With content packages on offer to meet a range of needs, and subtitles and dubbing in several languages, operators can tailor the content they provide to suit their budget and the tastes of audiences.
Different functionalities are available as separate licences, with TV functionality, video-on-demand, radio and information channels being some of the licences available. If an operator finds high demand for a particular type of content, or that they have different requirements to the licence they initially signed up for, it is straightforward to add an additional licence. “You can pick and choose what you want but inside the system the code is the same and everything is standardised,” said Mr Rinker.
The look and feel of BasePort can also be customised, said Mr Rinker, explaining that fonts, colours and logos can be altered by the operator to suit their needs.
Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal cruise company, has in recent years upgraded existing vessels and added a new vessel to its fleet. This included installing Baze Technologies’ system on board vessels. The solution Hurtigruten opted for provides entertainment to guests and crew and functions as a public display system in hallways and restaurants.
Another case study is that of Color Line’s Color Magic, a 224-m, 6,133-dwt ropax vessel. In January 2018, Baze Technology undertook a complete replacement of Color Magic’s TV system, switching out the old system for BazePort IPTV. This involved replacing all TV sets, wall mount brackets, switches and head end equipment. Color Line use the IPTV system to transmit GPS-based safety and information film features, news tickers and other messaging.
“We specialise in working with clients far out at sea, which need specialised systems that can be run and maintained remotely,” said Mr Rinker, adding that as well as being able to perform remote maintenance, Baze Technology also employs staff with relevant knowledge and certification to work on board vessels and offshore platforms.
Speaking with Mr Rinker, it seems clear there are three key elements for owners to consider when it comes to infotainment: reliability – such as ease of maintenance and capability of handling many users accessing content at once; customisability – in terms of content available and the look and feel, and ease of pushing out updates and new content; and quality of content – being able to provide content to suit a wide range of tastes, to a range of devices. Passengers expect to access content with the same ease they can on their sofas at home, and the technology is now there for owners to provide this.
MSC Cruises' in-cabin AI assistant Zoe was launched in February 2019
Passengers on board MSC Cruises' vessels will have their very own robotic concierge to ensure their voyage goes smoothly.
Zoe, a voice-enabled AI, was launched by MSC in February 2019. The AI will be able to answer hundreds of questions about life on board, help with excursion and restaurant reservations, check bills, and more.
The system is the first of its type to be introduced to the cruise industry, and brings together integrated technologies such as machine learning, natural language processing and smart audio technology. The system underwent extensive testing in areas such as speech recognition, ability to transform speech to text and vice versa, and other behavioural, experiential and performance tests. The system is also designed to continue learning and developing responses based on real-life guest interactions.
Similar to consumer digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, Zoe is activated by saying “OK Zoe,” and can understand requests in seven languages. It has been programmed to respond to more than 800 of the most commonly asked questions and understand thousands of variants of each question.
The system was developed in partnership with Samsung Electronics and subsidiary Harman International Industries, which specialises in connected technology.
Harman’s president of connected services and chief technology officer Sanjay Dhawan said “Digital assistants and voice recognition technologies are transforming the opportunity to create a guest experience that is highly personal, adaptable and intuitive.
“Our team at Harman Connected Services is incredibly excited to bring this innovation to MSC Cruises as we modernise and enhance the guest experience from the start to the end.”
On the hardware front, Zoe incorporates far-field microphones and a high-quality speaker. A quad-core processor means it can process requests and respond quickly, and Bluetooth functionality allows guests to connect directly to the device and access music and podcasts to play through the speaker.
MSC has designed Zoe to work alongside MSC for Me, a technology launched in 2017 that aims to assist guests with navigation and organisation on board vessels through connectivity points, digital access points, interactive screens and other technology. An example of this is that Zoe interacts with the in-cabin TV, using Samsung Electronics’ Hotel Management System software to provide guests with more indepth information and other services.
MSC Cruises chief executive officer Gianni Onorato said “The [MSC for Me] technology was built into the very design of the new ships, incorporated into every step of the development process of each prototype, from conception and construction.”
“This was just the starting point in providing a connected cruise experience.
“There was a core guest need to be met, which was to find answers to common questions in a quick and easy way, enabling guests to make the most of their holiday.
“We researched the latest connected technologies and identified voice assistants and artificial intelligence as the way to meet this need and the work on Zoe began.”
Available on MSC Meraviglia, MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview, MSC for ME now integrates a chat functionality that enables guests to message directly through the app even without an internet package. A friends and family locator function, to be rolled out progressively through 2019, is also in development. This will be available at an additional charge and enable guests to keep track of family and friends across the vessel.
Zoe is being rolled out first on MSC Bellissima, which is scheduled for launch on 2 March 2019. MSC Bellissima is the second Meraviglia-class vessel in MSC's fleet, measuring 315 m with acommodation for 4,500 guests. After this launch, the system will then be rolled out on the next two vessels to be launched, MSC Grandiosa and MSC Virtuosa in 2020.