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Okay Zoe – let’s experience a smartship

Okay Zoe – let’s experience a smartship

Earlier this year, I was invited to experience cruising at its finest. I know the preconceived notions that ships are perhaps for a more mature audience, I had them too but I really enjoyed myself and have learnt that this is no longer the case. Taking a cruise is now for the entire family and the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has proven exactly this point by implementing impressive technology that brings cruising into the 21st century.

We’ve all heard of smartphones and smart cities, but the technology revealed on the MSC Bellissima is notable, the exact reason that MSC has classified its fleet as smartships.

But let’s start at the beginning.

First off I need to mention that we are not talking about boats. Over and over again, I was reminded of the sheer size of the ship. Seriously, there is a lot of ground to cover on the MSC Bellissima and I’ll admit, I lost my bearings a few times. (Have a look at my video here… and this isn’t even all of it!)

To put the size into some perspective, the ship’s deck surface area is equivalent to 63 football pitches and there are over 20 bars and lounges on board, so we’re talking about a lot of real estate.

MSC for Me

I soon discovered I was not the only one to lose my way and this is where tech on the MSC Bellissima stepped in to save my bacon. The MSC company has developed an app that can be used to check into the ship, make reservations, and check schedules etc. MSC for Me is a multi-channel digital programme where guests can actually interact with the ship and the crew members at anytime. MSC for Me helps serve passengers’ needs better by saving them time. My most used feature was the map though. Yup, just like Google maps or Waze (well better than Waze), the MSC Bellissima app could direct you to where you were hoping to go.

If you chose to leave your phone in the cabin, there were also large screens with directories to access the information you need, similar to the info kiosks you’d find at a mall.

The chat feature on the app allows guests to message each other directly, without having to purchase an internet package and by scanning each others QR codes, you’re connected.

The app also lets you plan your time on the MSC Bellissima. You can add selected pre-booked experiences like excursions, specialty restaurant reservations, a massage or even the Cirque du Soleil at Sea show.

To avoid any hassle onboard, it is a good idea to pre-register your credit card on the app – it just takes the hassle out of carrying your card around, paying for everything all the time and even speeds up the process at check-in.

The smartband – so handy

Yes, the MSC Bellissima even had a smartband. The MSC for Me wristband has Bluetooth low energy technology that lets you into your room, foregoing that keycard that could easily get lost, but you can even use it to charge things to your room. If you’re linked up to family members, you can even see where everyone is on the map in the app, which I thought was helpful when you have to keep track of your kids in a huge place like this.

And then there’s Zoe

Zoe, developed in partnership with Harman and Samsung Electronics, is the MSC Bellissima’s voice-enabled artificial intelligence (AI) assistant. This impressive little box is found in every cabin. Speaking seven languages, she can answer hundreds of questions about the cruise and can offer information about onboard facilities, provide guidance and suggestions and even help book services.

To ensure Zoe could respond effectively to all guests, she was programmed and trained to respond to more than 800 of the most commonly asked questions with thousands of different variants of each question. Testing was carried out on the conversation designs: Zoe’s natural speech recognition and ability to transform speech into text and back again, in addition to scores of other behavioural, experiential and performance tests. As an artificial intelligence solution, Zoe is designed to continue learning and developing her responses based on real guest interactions.

If you ask her about possibly taking excursions at a specific port, instead of naming every single event, she will list the offerings on the TV in your room.

Her services were very fun, I mean easy, easy to use. To chat to her, you just say, “Okay Zoe”, and she’s ready to help. There is an advanced voice recognition feature which should make it easy for her to understand you but because she was still learning accents when I was introduced to her, she sometimes struggled a bit with my South African accent, but my German she understood! Ja wohl!

Zoe’s physical design has advanced audio with far field microphones and a professional quality speaker to provide the best audio experience. Thanks to the integration of a top-of-the-range quadcore processor, we can expect a quick response from her. You can even connect your phone to Zoe via Bluetooth to listen to your podcasts or your music.

Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises.

According to Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, Zoe is named after his daughter. “My wife is Alexa and that was already taken!

“The cruise experience is constantly evolving to become ever richer, offering an increasingly wide choice of services and facilities. In 2017 we introduced MSC for Me, an industry-leading digital innovation platform that revolutionised the way that guests were able to customise and personalise their experience. The 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.”

As mentioned earlier, the ground-breaking AI guest service was developed in partnership with the MSC Cruises’ Business Innovation team and Harman International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Samsung Electronics. The collaboration brought together the best-in-class expertise in voice-enabled technology and cruising as part of a shared vision for connected living, now extended to the cruise industry.

“Today, customers have increasingly high expectations for connected experiences wherever they live, work – and now, travel,” says Sanjay Dhawan, president of connected services and CTO at Harman. “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 as we modernise and enhance the guest experience from beginning to end.”

Long-term innovation partner, Samsung Electronics, designed the hotel management system software that allows Zoe to connect with the TV to provide guests with further in-depth information and other guest services.

“Samsung has always been committed to leveraging its technology leadership to improve the quality of people’s lives and to bring innovation to the world,” says Hyesung Ha, senior vice president of enterprise product marketing group, Samsung Electronics. “The partnership with MSC is an example of how our advanced solutions enhance the guest experience: not only with our displays to access information and infotainment content on board, but through a true comprehensive digital experience. Thanks to this long-lasting partnership, Samsung and MSC Cruises are bringing innovation to the cruise industry.”

While Zoe is a virtual personal cruise assistant, available 24/7 she is not designed to replace human interaction between crew and guest, but rather to provide guests with the flexibility to communicate and discover information from the comfort of their cabins. The plan for Zoe going forward: to be able to offer individual experiences to guests on the ship.

To find out more about Zoe click here. More information about MSC Bellissima can be found here.

Clare Petra Matthes

Hi, I'm Clare and I am a freelance writer and Tech journalist as well as the owner and founder of where I review tech devices and also cover emerging technology news. Outside of I write for a number of publications and have regular tech slots on chaiFM radio station and eNCA's Tech Matters national breakfast TV news show.

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