HOW IS TECHNOLOGY SHAPING THE DESIGN-LED TRAVEL EXPERIENCE?
In the curious world of tech startups, amid the bountiful billions of Silicon Valley’s new world order, many mega-bucks acquisitions make perfect sense: Facebook’s $1 billion purchase of Instagram, the same company’s jaw-dropping accession of WhatsApp for $19 billion, or the one that kinda started it all … Google snapping up YouTube in 2006 for $1.4 billion. Sure, the figures are incomprehensible, but what the new owners are looking to achieve with these buy-outs is straightforward. Others require a bit more understanding of where these tech overlords want to take us next: did you know Google threw $3.2 billion at Nest Labs (the folk who make those fancy thermostats and the talking smoke alarm), Mark Zuckerberg and his pals handed over $2 billion for virtual reality startup Oculus VR?
The connected home … virtual reality … tech acquisitions can often give us a hint at how our worlds will look in five, ten years from now. But then there are the deals that perplex. In September last year, Airbnb dropped an undisclosed sum on Lapka — a peculiar Russian product design startup whose most famous product was a beautifully-designed ‘Personal Environment Monitor’; a series of physical sensors that measure things like radiation, electromagnetic fields, and even if your food is organic or not. They look like objets d’art, and use your smartphone to provide analysis of your surroundings. Airbnb were, and have since been, guarded about the motives behind the acquisition, leaving Lapka’s founder Vadik Marmeladov to add to the curiosity: ‘what we’re capable of building together is beyond explanation, so let’s leave that for later news. The future is long.’
The Internet of Things (IoT) is big news at every major international tech event these days; it’s all about the increased communication of machines, objects, the physical — think Nest Labs, but also think roads or bridges with ‘smart cement’ that can detect problems before they become a disaster … think self-piloted cars that tell the other self-piloted cars a few yards behind there’s been an accident. Smart cars, smart roads, smart homes. The future is smart. But what does that mean for hotels and for travel? I’d be disappointed if all we got from Lapka was a fancy key-fob for your next Airbnb rental but, I feel we’re on the cusp of big, exciting changes, in all walks of life. Airbnb know it, Lapka know it, Google and Facebook know it … the future that kids like me, a child of the ‘80s, dreamt of is just around the corner.
Tomorrow is tomorrow, though, and one problem hoteliers in particular struggle with, is how and why to introduce future-forward technology into their experience. Is it a differential or a gimmick, value-adding or money-wasting? From Yotel New York’s luggage-shifting YOBOT, to Madrid’s NH Collection Eurobuilding with 3D holographic conference facilities (which last year allowed Hugh Jackman to be at the Spanish press conference of his film CHAPPIE whilst still being in Berlin), it can feel like brands are in a battle for oneupmanship that leaves their customers entirely ambivalent. Tech is a fast-moving world, and most guests are usually carrying devices in their pockets that are just as powerful as those hotels try and wow us with.
Whether the YBOT adds anything to luggage storage that a porter couldn’t, what’s undeniable is that it looks good. ‘We think form follows function, and we wanted to use industrial forms as art, rather than paintings or sculptures — that’s been done before. Nobody else has a moving Yobot in the reception of their hotel,’ explains Yotel CEO Gerard Greene. True, any Tom, Dick or Harry can dish out a pre-programmed tablet on check-in, but have you got a massive assembly-line robotic arm whirring around in your lobby? Let us not forget the importance of art in the contemporary hotel experience.
Founded by the former wife of Poland’s richest man, Poznań’s Blow Up Hall 5050 is — as the name suggests — 50% art, 50% hotel. Inspired by Antonioni’s iconic 1966 film Blowup, rooms are accessed via an electronic installation by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which captures your image and returns a pixellated you onto its screens. It’s got all the tech mod cons — a door-opening, room-seeking iPhone for the duration of your stay; virtual concierge — but, like Yotel, it is Blow Up Hall’s embracing of technology as art that hints at a wider use for pioneering technology in the hospitality experience. After all, the creative class are showing up to gallery openings by artists who embrace the bleeding-edge of technology into their work; they are attending experimental electronic music festivals and being exposed to the latest in virtual reality; hell, they’re probably working in Silicon Valley … they don’t need to be wowed by ordering room service on a defective Samsung tablet.
Down in Sydney, curator Amanda Love added a few unusual pieces to the collection of the city’s QT hotel, digital works by artists Daniel Crooks, Daniel Boyd, and Grant Steven; video works that play out in the hotel’s reception, its bar, and in some of the guest rooms. Seasoned travellers may be familiar with this type of thing, plenty of design- and culture-led hotels are teaming up with local galleries to put digital art onto in-room TVs, and a new wave of digital canvases — Electronic Objects’ EO1; Yugo Nakamura’s FRAMED*; and Curater from the folk behind Acne Studios — are sure to be spotted on hotel walls soon; their high definition screens and strong aesthetics providing the perfect platform for curated in-room art experiences.
Taking your in-room art experience to another level, Marriott Hotels recently announced what they called the ‘first ever in-room virtual reality travel experience’; a trial that took place late last year in their New York Marriott Marquis and London Marriott Park Lane hotels, allowing guests to be virtually whisked off to the Andes Mountains in Chile, an ice cream shop in Rwanda, and to Beijing’s hectic streets. Future applications? Perhaps it could save on renewal projects, the magic of VR giving guests the impression that they’re staying in the lap of luxury whilst they battle for space with bed-bugs under a 1970s duvet.
Innovations aren’t just taking place at a cultural level, though, and it seems our friend YOBOT could soon be rivalled by more intelligent robots. Yes, robots. It’s 2016 and I’m writing a piece about tech trends in the hospitality industry, I’ve got to mention robots, right? And so to Japan, of course, where the assembly-line robotic arm is doing exactly the same job as New York’s YOBOT, but is accompanied here in Sasebo by an army of mechanical pals. Welcome to Henn-na, the world’s first ‘bot-staffed hotel.
Located in the Huis Ten Bosch theme park, Henn-na is really, really strange — and lifelike reception desk androids are accompanied by a velociraptor with an American accent. Porter robots will fetch your bags to the room; an in-room kawaii-style creature will help you with in-room tech and chat to you about the weather; automated nuts and bolts will even help clean rooms, although there is no word on whether they can change bedsheets or not. How far is this from an everyday reality? A walk around Tokyo’s International Robot Exhibition may have you reassessing the near-future — these guys can dance, play football, and table tennis; delivering room service is child’s play.
Which takes us back to Silicon Valley, and another Google investment: Savioke’s Relay is a shiny 3.5 foot-tall cylinder that looks like a really posh bin. He’s not a bin. Relay is a robot based on a vision to integrate mechanical helpers into the real world, and he’s already active in a small number of hotels in California; including two branches of W Hotels-offshoot Aloft, where he’s been renamed Botlr.
You want towels at the pool? Snacks or toiletries to your room? Hit up Botlr on your smartphone, and the wee fella will come a-runnin’ … well, a-wheelin’. A word of caution, though, let us not forget the plight of poor hitchBOT, a robotic social experiment instigated by Canadian researchers, whose journey from Massachusetts to San Francisco was tragically cut short in Philadelphia; where the hitch-hiking ‘bot (who relied on the kindness of strangers to travel) was found decapitated.
Of course, away from robots and all the things that the near-future promises, the technology industry’s biggest wins — the projects that made the billions that make jaw-dropping tech possible — are about people, and communication. Facebook couldn’t fly internet-providing drones over unconnected parts of the third world without having won over its first users in American colleges; Google wouldn’t have self-driving cars crashing into buses it they hadn’t cornered the market on search, and online advertising.
Amid a wave of digital concierge Apps, LobbyFriend offers a vision of how communication and personal connection could shape our experience. It calls itself ‘the first ever temporary social network’, and puts guests in touch with one another — turning your stay into a networking opportunity; allowing fellow guests to recommend local restaurants or bars; opening up questions, queries, and answers to a hotel-wide audience; and giving hotels the opportunity to put special offers into a hotel-only feed. The design-led ‘luxe’ hostel trend has arisen from contemporary travellers desire to connect, to experience locality, LobbyFriend is an intruding addition to the guest experience.
And that’s what it all comes down to: experience. Technology is changing our lives in ways we could never have imagined, but it only really matters if it truly enhances our experience; whether that be as a hotel guest, as a driver, a flyer, as a friend, or family member. Drones and droids look like great fun, but the future of technology is about you and I. These are exciting times, how will experience-makers harness the right technologies for the right moments? Stay tuned.