Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas with first 81 virtual balcony cabins sails Feb. 5
Royal Caribbean will introduce one of the most innovative cruise ships to arrive in many years, Quantum of the Seas, next November. But one of the unique features of Quantum will be making a “sneak preview” on another Royal Caribbean ship this month (February). The newly designed “Virtual Balconies” for Quantum’s inside cabins are currently being installed in 81 staterooms on Navigator of the Seas, a smaller Royal Caribbean ship just completing a dry-dock upgrade and sailing next week out of Galveston.
Royal Caribbean President Adam Goldstein present Virtual Balconies at a press conference for Quantum of the Seas
Virtual Balconies – Real Balcony Views for Inside Staterooms
The majority of staterooms on cruise ships have real verandas (balconies) with glass patio doors and windows to allow sunlight and a view of the outside world into the room. Verandahs are so popular that most luxury ships have them in every stateroom. Most mainstream cruise ships also have a majority of balcony cabins along with lower categories such as inside cabins with no windows at all.
Disney was the first cruise line to “virtual portholes” for their inside cabins, but they are only 42-inch circles made to look like portholes. The display shows is a video feed from a live camera outside the ship.
An actual cabin mockup - showing a virtual balcony as it will appear on Quantum and Navigator
But Royal Caribbean is now taking virtual windows for inside cabins to the max with its new “Virtual Balconies.” These virtual balconies will have an 80-inch High Definition display framed and placed to appear like a real balcony, stretching nearly floor to ceiling and wall to wall. This is far more than just a feed from a camera to a large screen, according to Charlie Miller of “Control Group,” the concept design company, and Ronnie Farzad, head of entertainment technology for Royal Caribbean, whom I just spoke with from aboard Navigator of the Seas.
Ronnie and Charlie explained the engineering, testing and scientific principles that went into the most realistic virtual balcony experience they could create – including a banister for safety. I have not yet had a chance to see these balconies in person, but I am told every inside cabin on Quantum of the Seas will have them; even the “Studio Staterooms,” for singles which will have smaller versions of them.
The Virtual Balcony Experience
Yes, you did read correctly that a banister is included for safety. Actually, the feeling of safety is more accurate. Royal Caribbean tested a simulated virtual balcony on 30 to 40 people at the Royal Caribbean headquarters. One recurring comment was that an open ocean view is a little scary – because there was nothing to keep them from falling in, especially if the ship is moving in high seas.
Of course, you can’t fall through a wall, and even if you could you would just be in the next cabin, but the answer to this concern was to create virtual banisters and even balusters, the vertical poles that hold banisters in place, using computer graphics.
But the banister had to appear to be outside of the window, like on a real balcony, which created a whole new set of visual challenges. The look of a real banister changes all the time as the sun and the ship change directions. The answer was to incorporate sun movement charts and powerful GPS data to add “real” shadows and highlights to the virtual banisters. At the same time, they decided not to put virtual glass between the balusters. Why? “It only detracted from the beautiful ocean image on the display. Plus, no one is going to fall through them, anyway.”
The Motion of the Ocean
This was actually the easier problem to solve. The bigger challenge was the motion of the ocean. Consulting experts from M.I.T. and Harvard warned of unpleasant feelings when visual perceptions of motion don’t coordinate with real physical feelings. This meant there had to be as little delay between the camera feed and the display on the stateroom screen as possible. An advanced and rare technology called fibre-channel was the answer. “Once we got the latency under one second it was no longer an issue,” they told me.
Other top of the line technology comes in the Academy Award winning RED Epic HD cinema cameras, with one placed at the bow and the other at the stern of the ship. It was decided that the best viewing angles were not to the sides of the ship, but forward and aft. In fact, real balcony staterooms with the same views usually sell out first. So each virtual balcony is on a side wall and not the outside wall. In addition, the images only correspond to the direction the virtual balcony faces. The designers chose to give each room a remote control so the guests can turn the picture on or off, and control the volume of the audio taken from the outside camera. But they cannot change views between the forward and aft cameras.
When I asked why not, Ronnie Farzad of Royal Caribbean told me “It has to do with coordinating the visual images with the physical feelings.” I hadn’t even thought of that. I said “I thought it was so people wouldn’t walk the wrong direction when they left their staterooms.” Funny thing, he was so deep in scientific thought he hadn’t thought of what I said.
Another technical decision was to use a wide-angle, “fish-eye” lens on the cameras. Miller said, “These give a more accurate representation of the visuals from a real balcony.” Plus, they also found a drastic reduction in the feeling of motion in the image.
In the end, “Virtual Balconies” have all the visual and aural advantages of a real balcony – including a feeling of safety and a lower price point than a real balcony. The only thing missing, of course, is the fresh air.
The “Virtual Balcony” Debut
Your first opportunity to cruise in a virtual balcony on Navigator of the Seas will be a four-day cruise sailing from Galveston February 5th, 2014, at a very reasonable $429 per person. If you are interested in seeing these virtual balconies on Navigator, go to Navigator of the Seas.