Technology: Future travel right now

There was a time not so long ago when the cutting edge in travel technology was trains, planes and automobiles. While those are still getting faster, comfier and more efficient, a host of more hidden technologies are changing our travel habits altogether…

By Donald Strachan
Published 13 Jan 2016, 08:00 GMT

The future is here. Key technologies are already changing the way we travel and reshaping the entire experience, whether it's booking and packing or choosing the perfect restaurant for dinner. And the tech revolution isn't slowing down anytime soon. From personalisation to app-powered hotels, breakthroughs in connectivity to reigning in those roaming fees, we look at the latest digital developments that are re-plotting the travel map.

Data gets personal

'Personalisation' and 'big data' have been buzzwords at travel conferences for the past few years. Through large-scale data analysis, your online 'experience' is personalised way before you set foot in an airport. Holiday planning might begin with Google, but what pops up on your screen during a search probably won't match mine if I search for the same thing. Chances are Google knows your location, even if you search from a desktop, and will return search information relevant to it.

"Google was an early mover," says Charlotte Lamp Davies, vice president, travel and hospitality, at DataArt, a technology consulting firm. "To users that opt-in, they scan emails for information about travel plans and integrate that personalised content across multiple products — Gmail, Google Now and Google Search. Google is basically a giant personalisation engine."

TripAdvisor also has personalisation embedded in its service. Your Facebook connections and search history help it to curate recommendations in a tailor-made order, known as 'Just for You'.

Personalisation is not just for web giants with big budgets. "Cloud computing — on-demand, cost-efficient, 'limitless' storage combined with search tools such as Hadoop — allows companies to mine massive amounts of data, internal and external, and combine different models to formulate 'opinions' on what you may or may not want during trip search," explains Davies.

Data mining is breeding a new kind of company. "Big data is changing everything about how travel services interact with consumers — from better, more powerful products through to smart personalisation," says Tom Leathes, co-founder and CEO of Top10, a hotel price-comparison engine that sifts through multiple data points to recommend the 10 most appropriate hotels for you in any destination. "At Top10 we offer personalised recommendations based on a range of factors, all driven by big data. Even if you've never been to Top10 before, we tailor results based on data points from previous visitors similar to you."

"Personalisation in travel booking is about capturing intent and delivering relevancy," he adds. "Has the customer just booked a business class flight? Are they travelling with a family? What's in their Google Calendar for the dates they're searching? All these questions require the user to give permissions to access this data, but there are ways to do it even without that personal information; knowing where someone is searching from can give a pointer to hotels that are likely to appeal to them."

Done right, personalisation can be win–win: customers get targeted with more relevant offers, and travel agents make more sales. It will quickly become standard online practice.

App-powered hotels

A personal touch has always mattered in the hotel business. "The mobile phone is becoming the 'remote control' while on the property," explains Geraldine Calpin, senior vice president and global head of digital at Hilton Worldwide. HHonors members can check-in ahead of arrival and choose a specific room from over 4,000 hotels. Since launching in late 2014, around a third of eligible Hilton guests have used digital check-in, according to the company. The HHonors app learns your preferences — extra pillows, for example — and can anticipate needs next time you stay. In addition, by early 2016, digital room keys on mobile phones will be opening rooms at four Hilton brands. Initially, the launch is for 250 hotels in the US only. Calpin describes the tech rollout so far as "just the tip of the iceberg for digital at Hilton".

In-room controls are also getting tech support. At Citizen M hotels, a MoodPad enables guests to control everything from coloured ambient lighting to TV channels — and it doesn't stop there. "On the way, your phone automatically alerts the hotel you've broken a 'geo-barrier' as you arrive in your taxi, and the doorman greets you by name, takes your luggage and shows you straight to your room," suggests Leathes. "Once in there, your preferences are already set up — your favourite music plays, the thermostat syncs with your home's Nest system to set a perfect temperature, and your meeting schedule for the next day displays on the TV screen. This is all technology that's here now — the challenge is in rolling it out."

The end-point won't be emotionless hotels staffed by robots — it'll be quite the opposite. Technology should free hotels to focus on service, rather than tedious tasks like check-in and issuing keys.

Hoteliers will increasingly use technology, too. "Hotels are deploying technology that tracks how guests are interacting with parts of the hotel — the restaurant, room service, concierge, TV, internet, temperature, minibar and more," says Davies. "This data helps to identify trends such as whether certain parts of the room are under-utilised. That data is then considered when it comes to renovating."

Seamless connectivity?

So many apps are developed with a permanently connected traveller in mind. But anyone who has returned home to a roaming bill knows the real world isn't like that — yet.

The European Union has set June 2017 as the date by which roaming fees within its borders will be scrapped. The mobile network Three, however, has been ahead of the curve. With Feel at Home tariffs, customers travelling to any of 18 countries can use phones as they do in the UK without extra cost. As well as European destinations such as France and Italy, Three's list includes the USA, New Zealand and Australia, where roaming is often expensive.

It's not straightforward to set up seamless connection. "To achieve Feel At Home we have to negotiate wholesale rates — the charges foreign operators charge domestic operators for servicing their customers while abroad — that then makes it commercially viable," explains Danny Dixon, director of customer strategy at Three.

"This meant working with operators in the Feel at Home countries and discussing the benefits of a high volume/lower cost roaming offer compared to the low volume/high cost approach they are used to. We have had to develop enough of these deals to provide customers with national coverage when they are in that country."

Evidence gathered by Three suggests we really do use our phones differently when roaming charges disappear. In June, data
usage per customer travelling in Feel At Home countries was 30 times higher than in non-Feel At Home countries. But what
about genuinely global, seamless connected travel? "I would say we are quite a way off that point at the moment but it is certainly possible," says Dixon.

Power packed

Roaming fees are not the only barrier to connectivity. Getting a smartphone battery to survive a full-on day of maps, reviews, hotel booking and mobile tickets — and perhaps even the occasional phone call — takes some mastering.

Lithium-ion has been the key technology in portable electronics for almost 25 years and looks set to remain so. "Lithium-ion will likely remain the consumer electronics standard for the next five to 10 years," says Jeff Snow, senior director of product management at Motorola. But Motorola is also "looking at how to get large amounts of silicon in the anode and keep it structurally intact.
This could provide a step-change in energy density." And, ultimately, it could lead to longer battery life and better integration of smartphones into our travel routines.

"Lithium-ion technology is still showing small developments in battery life through improvements in battery management systems, cell engineering and materials," says Lynn Trahey, materials scientist and research integration officer at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, Argonne National Laboratory.

"Very long battery life in Li-ion batteries is possible now if you're willing to sacrifice other things, such as size, cost and power." This, of course, is the problem: the major obstacle to a real revolution in battery life may be the fact that we want our phones pocket-sized.

"Since the battery competes with the processor for space in a smartphone, there would have to be a really radical advance in technology for consumers to notice radically better batteries. Through hard research we might see double or triple the capacity of smartphone batteries one day, but that will always depend on how the battery is used and integrated," adds Trahey.

Smart accessories

Soon it won't be just your phone that shows its smarts. Companies including Bluesmart, Trunkster and Barracuda are developing 'smart luggage' that travellers can track — in theory to prevent cases being lost or stolen.

So, a lost bag sitting in Frankfurt — when the owner was expecting it in New York — will be able to communicate its location to a server in San Francisco and help its owner find it quickly. But making this work is not easy. "For starters, what network would be used to communicate that information?" says Boban Jose, Barracuda's designer. "It has to be over something wireless such as cellular, which is a challenge in itself. Airline regulations require wireless devices to go offline, so the luggage has to be smart enough to go offline and then back on after landing. Then there is the durability aspect: luggage has to go through a lot of (not too gentle) handling."

But such challenges are surmountable, and your luggage is destined to become another data point in the Internet of Things, where everyday objects from cars to fridges all live online.

Something to wear

So-called 'wearable technology' incorporates more than just watches, but Apple's new timepiece has hogged the headlines so far. Several travel apps already have Apple Watch capability built in, including Citymapper, Hailo and Expedia. But can smartwatches and other wearables deliver more? "When I'm dragging three bags down the street and can anticipate the next turn with a quick glance at my wrist instead of taking out my phone — that's a really simple solution that the Apple Watch makes possible," says Jen Moyse, head of product for TripIt, an ingenious organiser app that automatically transforms hotel, flight, car hire and restaurant reservation emails into a master itinerary. "It's also pretty nice that I can pay without taking out my wallet, thanks to Apple Pay, and use my watch as my hotel room key at Starwood properties."

TripIt is among the apps already adapted for Apple Watch. "Travellers can see upcoming plans or find hotel check-in time at a glance. How many times have you missed a message because your phone was in your bag? TripIt's Pro alerts actually tap travellers on the wrist if their flight has been delayed or cancelled, or if their gate has changed, all without slowing them down."

Looking further forward? "The possibilities are huge, and we're just starting to take advantage of them. Take the new sensors that can tell if I'm moving, and how fast. Can all that data help with safety? It certainly adds a convenience factor. I'm looking forward to smart fabrics that can keep me warm or cool, so I can pack less."

"The challenge will be to integrate all these smart things in a way that doesn't result in information overload," adds Jose. "One can only tolerate a beeping shirt for so long."

Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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