Sci-Tech

I cruised on the ship of the future. The future looks awesome

Crave's Michael Franco sets sail on Royal Caribbean's latest ship and gets treated to a tour of its high-tech features from virtual balconies to power robots.

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The Quantum of the Seas, a tech-rich beauty of a ship.Michel Verdure

The numbers are certainly impressive. It weighs 168,666 gross tons. It's 2.5 times taller than the great Pyramid of Giza. It's longer than five Boeing 747 jetliners and 11 times bigger than a blue whale. And its four thrusters produce 4,694 horsepower each -- the same as 24 Formula One race cars.

But numbers can only get you so far. I was eager to see just how impressive Royal Caribbean's new Quantum of the Seas ship was in person, so when members of the media got invited aboard for a recent two-night sail out of New York, I jumped on deck.

Billed as the world's first "smart ship," the Quantum tucks cutting-edge technology into every nook from bow to stern. There's a bar where robotic arms mix your drinks; a theater where six "roboscreens" star in a tech-heavy performance; 30 bumper cars; an Xbox playroom; a hydraulic arm with a glass-enclosed capsule dangling from it that lifts you 303 feet above the sea; and a skydiving simulator that lets you fly on a column of air in the middle of the ocean (yup, I did it -- see the gallery below).

Fun aside, perhaps the most useful aspect of the ship's technology is its fast Wi-Fi. As I reported back in August, Royal Caribbean forged a partnership with O3B to launch its own set of low-Earth-orbit satellites to provide faster connectivity to its ships. By beaming signals to dedicated satellites three to four times closer to Earth than those used by previous systems, Royal Caribbean says it now has more bandwidth than all the other ships at sea combined.

Indeed, lots of people passed the entire cruise with their faces buried in their smartphones and tablets (maybe an unpleasant side effect of providing all that bandwidth to people who are supposed to be relaxing), so the system was definitely put to the test. Royal Caribbean says the onboard speeds should be similar to those on land, and I found this mostly true, with some brief slowdowns here and there. Interestingly, the O3b network doesn't turn on till you're out at sea, so things got better once we were away from New York harbor.

I ran a speed test using SpeedTest.net and CNET's own connection speed tracker. They both reported speeds in the 4Mbps range -- not bad at all. When I streamed "Blacklist" over Netflix, though, I got the lowest-quality stream available, even though the website itself loaded in under 6 seconds. Still, having ANY fast Wi-Fi connectivity at sea is a huge improvement over the zombie-like connections that have heretofore been available on cruise ships -- unless, of course, you get tired of bumping into all those people looking down at their devices instead of where they're walking. Royal Caribbean says that all that bandwidth will allow it to keep prices low. Expect to pay about $12-$15 per day for access.

Even more impressive than all the consumer-facing tech aboard Quantum is the technology found behind the scenes. At dinner with Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain, I learned that to reduce the risk of fire, there are no spliced wires anywhere aboard, so some electrical cables need to run from bow to stern -- a distance of 1,141 feet. Each floor of the ship was actually built upside down and then flipped over onto the layer below it at the shipyard in Germany and 360,000 pieces of steel were used in the ship's construction. Although not quite high-tech, I also found it interesting that 240,000 drawings were used in bringing the ship to life.

On a tour of the ship's bridge, engine room and recycling center, I learned even more about the wondrous symphony of technology that keeps such a massive ship sailing smoothly and efficiently. For example, I had no idea that pretty much the entire ship was controlled by a few joysticks.

I learned a bunch more about Quantum of the Seas and took a ton of photos to try to share the experience it offers its guests. So take your own tour of the super ship by clicking through the images above, which also tell you a lot more about the technology -- large and small -- that powers it. And be sure to watch the video below to see CNET's Bridget Carey's tour of the Quantum's high-tech highlights.

Quantum of the Seas will sail out of Bayonne, N.J., and make trips through the Caribbean until May 2015. After that, it will be relocated to China, so if you want to take a trip aboard the world's first smartship without paying a boatload in airfare, now's the time. Cruises are available starting at $499 per person for a "Three-Night Sampler Cruise" that goes along the New Jersey coast, to a 7-night Bahama cruise near the holidays starting at $2349 per person.

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