High tech on the high seas: Carnival cruises' smart makeover

CNET boards the Regal Princess, essentially a massive floating hive mind with thousands of sensors designed to satisfy your every whim -- or at least try.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read
Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Watch this: Carnival's smart ship makeover set to revolutionize cruising

I feel suddenly small as I walk down the gangplank into the dry-docked Regal Princess, a 142,000-ton technological experiment from cruise company Carnival.

Start by imagining a smart home, decked out with sophisticated tech and sensors. But instead of a residence for a few people, it can handle 3,560 guests at any time.

That's exactly what Carnival has done with the Regal Princess, the first ship in its Princess Cruises' fleet to get a massive technological overhaul as part of the Ocean Medallion project, first glimpsed back in January at CES .

Carnival's decision is yet another example of a company investing in cutting-edge tech designed to better serve customers and cater to their more sophisticated needs. From theme parks embracing virtual reality to airlines offering more advanced in-flight entertainment, vacations are increasingly going high tech. Now, Carnival is stepping up its game.

Inside Carnival's tech-filled Medallion cruise ship

See all photos

Carnival is not alone in its experiment with bringing more tech on board its ships, with competitors like Royal Caribbean boasting of a "smart concierge" and MSC integrating virtual reality experiences into its cruises.

This is a big leap for an industry in which the most luxurious cruise lines like Crystal or Regent Seven Seas haven't felt the need to upgrade because "their focus is very much on personal service," said Sue Bryant, cruise editor at The Sunday Times.

Carnival is hoping that more personal service is exactly what the Medallion project will enable.

To see what it takes to transform a cruise ship into what is effectively a massive, seaborne smart home, I traveled to Hamburg in the north of Germany to view the final touches to the upgrade.

A new class

At the heart of the Carnival's new "Medallion Class" cruises, passengers will receive a wearable that manages their personalized services.


The Ocean Medallion can be worn with different accessories.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With a name designed to make you feel like that swashbuckling, gold-hungry pirate you've already fantasized about becoming, the Ocean Medallion is a small waterproof module that weighs 1.8 ounces and comes with a battery life that Carnival pegs at more than a month. Each medallion snaps magnetically into accessories that can be worn on your wrist, a belt or a pendant.

"It is a form we are all familiar with. Cultures have used coins for thousands of years," said Michael Jungen, senior vice president for guest experience design and technology at Carnival.

The Medallion makeover

As I approached the Regal Princess from the bow end on her final day in dry dock on the Elbe River, John Padgett, Carnival's chief experience and innovation officer, pointed out the ribbons of blue painted onto the ship's chin.

"Princess ships have always been white," he said. The new design will be gradually rolled out among other Princess vessels to signal they have undergone a "Medallion makeover."


Princess ships will get ribbons of blue paint at the front to show they've had a "Medallion makeover."

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Medallion project is a massive undertaking, especially given that the crew members have continued to live on board the ship while the renovations were underway. We entered just as the renovations were wrapping up, though it felt like there was still a crazy amount to do in little more than 12 hours. In many places, wires still dangled from the ceiling, and the crew peeled protective plastic coating off plush, new carpets.

Workers had to cut open the walls to make way for giant 4K screens in every hallway (some custom-made by LG) and to string 75 miles of cabling throughout the ship. In fact, there are screens everywhere you look. "It's the canvas on which we display the experience," Jungen said.


Periwinkle cables connect the sensors throughout the ship

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Inside one of the data lockers situated between every two staterooms, we're shown the periwinkle cable that connects the entire Medallion system and its 7,000 location sensors. And those are just the fixed sensors.

Every stateroom door and every staff mobile device is also a sensor, effectively turning the ship into one giant hive mind that works in real time to serve your needs.

"It's about putting our guests in the middle of everything, regardless of the size of the ship," Padgett said.

From theme parks to cruise ships

As we sit down to a lunch of smoked salmon, risotto and chocolate cake in the Allegra dining room, I make a special request to the chef to exclude the prawns on the set menu. This is exactly the kind of friction Carnival wants to erase, Jungen said. On a Medallion Class cruise, the staff will be aware of my food allergy the moment I walk through the dining room doors.

"In theory, this technology will enhance the guest's experience," Bryant said. "It makes it easier for crew members to recognize a guest and address them by name, for example, which is something that wouldn't normally happen on a big ship with a couple of thousand guests."

Each medallion and a related smartphone app will also streamline the boarding process, open your room's door, remember your wine preferences, let you book reservations for activities, send you invitations to events and allow you to make purchases from anywhere on the ship. It's like a digital concierge and planning guide. There is also an opt-in location service that lets you keep tabs on everyone in your group and shows you where they are at any time.


Ocean Medallion is designed to enhance every part of the cruise.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Padgett and Jungen are both of Disney stock and were responsible for the introduction of Disney's MagicBands, which let you unlock your Disney hotel room, enter the park and buy food and merchandise. Cruise ships felt like the logical next step, given the similarities to theme parks, Padgett said.

It's also a way to elevate the experience of every guest en masse, no matter whether they've booked a suite or an inside cabin. "Medallion Class experience is inclusive," Padgett said. "Everyone gets it."

Protecting your data

Passengers can pick and choose how much they want out of the experience. If you don't want to download the app on your mobile device, you can view the same experience from a screen in your stateroom. Similarly, if you prefer a key card for your room, the staff will give you one.

"One of the biggest selling points of cruising is the excellent service, and some passengers may feel the personal touch gets lost if you're fiddling with your app rather than chatting to a waiter," Bryant said.

The same is true when it comes to your data. Two data centers on the ship process passenger information, and Princess abides by strict European Union data collection and retention rules. The company can hold onto your information -- like food and activity preferences -- for future vacations if you want, but the choice is yours.

"If the guest wants us to forget, we forget," Padgett said.

The ambient nature of the technology is what Padgett and Jungen hope will convince passengers to take advantage of its full potential.


You can customize your ocean-themed Tagalong with accessories and stickers.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Your own virtual guide

Over coffee, I ask Padgett about his personal favorite feature of the Medallion project over coffee. His eyes light up. It's Tagalong, an avatar that you can set up and customize before you even depart for your cruise.

When you're on board, cute little sea turtles and seahorses pop up on screens around the Regal Princess, creating a virtual companion for your journeys around the ship. They tap into each medallion to provide reminders and directions and also allow passengers to join in social gaming experiences like Tagalong Sprint, a race across a virtual ocean floor.

Jungen teases that there's more to come. For instance, he doesn't believe that you should have to use a headset to enter a mixed reality environment.

"The ship is the hardware," said Jungen. "We have the platform to stage mixed reality experiences."

Anchors away

Standing on the front top deck, amid three of the seven giant satellites used for ship-to-shore communications and internet connections, I spy the many spires of Hamburg in the distance. We tramp across the wood in steel-capped shoes, stepping over paint cans and cables where in only a matter of weeks passengers will stroll in their flip-flops.

Later that night, shipyard workers pumped water back under the ship to send it up the Elbe River into the North Sea. By afternoon the next day, the ship was docked in Copenhagen, Denmark. For the next few months the ship will travel the world, its true power lying dormant. Carnival will flick the switch in November and the first Medallion Class guests will board at Port Everglades in Florida. Despite the ship's upgrades -- the cost of which Carnival hasn't disclosed -- the company isn't planning to charge more for Medallion cruises.

Padgett and Jungen predict that the first few cruises will attract a unique set of people -- specifically those interested in experiencing a new personalized feel that the tech will bring to vacations. But after that, it will just become part of the Regal Princess experience.

"As cruisers get younger and people get more used to the technology," Bryant said, "it will become standard and people will probably expect it."

Correction, 12:25 p.m. PT: The name of the cruise line's parent company has been fixed.

Captain the bridge: Inside a cruise ship simulator

Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about VR.

CNET en Español: Get all your tech news and reviews in Spanish.