Virtual Balcony
Royal Caribbean unveiled 81 interior rooms with "virtual balconies" on its revamped Navigator of the Seas Wednesday. Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean’s 3,114-passenger Navigator of the Seas emerged from a major makeover this week with new accoutrements like a FlowRider surf simulator and an expanded lineup of dining options. But it’s a fresh feature within the windowless interior staterooms that’s got everyone in the industry buzzing: “virtual balconies.”

Royal Caribbean approached technology and design consultancy firm Control Group to bridge the gap between the digital and physical using new technology that would enhance the internal stateroom experience through a virtual representation of the sights, sounds and ambience of the seas. The result is an 80-inch high definition display screen, now located in 81 interior cabins within Navigator of the Seas, that showcases images captured in real time on marine-compliant RED Epic digital cinema cameras placed at both the forward and aft end of the ship.

Charlie Miller, associate partner with Control Group, told International Business Times in an email that a virtual balcony is much more than just some screen on a wall. “Lots of science, user testing, design and engineering went into creating a realistic, enhanced passenger experience,” he explained.

For example, Control Group discovered through user testing that the screen image should also have a balcony railing. “Users felt that the railing made them feel safer since the ‘view’ was so real,” Miller said. “We also consulted with MIT and Harvard scientists to understand how people would react to large life-like moving images in a small cabin on a ship in motion, without a frame of reference for what’s going on outside. We determined that using a very wide-angle lens minimizes the possibility of motion sickness.”

Miller added that three factors help make the virtual balconies incredibly authentic: the minimal latency between camera and display; the “invisibility” of both the control of the screen and the technology powering it; and the high quality, realistic views.

In regards to the latter, dynamic rendering engines and GPS data actually change balcony graphics to match the real-time lighting conditions, while Royal Caribbean mounted the displays in staterooms on either the north or south wall so that if a passenger is looking at the screen on a forward-facing wall, they’ll see the view from the bow of the ship.

It was Disney who first pioneered the idea to offer fake windows with real-time views of the ocean from rooms tucked away in the bowels of its behemoth ships three years ago. But unlike Royal Caribbean’s 80-inch HD display, originally designed for the forthcoming Quantum of the Seas, Disney offers a meager 42-inch-wide circle made to look like a porthole.

Anyone looking for a taste of the high life without the price tag can set sail from Galveston, Texas, beginning this month aboard the revitalized Navigator of the Seas for seven-night itineraries through the Western Caribbean. Guests gazing out from their virtual balconies can expect images of Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to flicker in the distance behind the ever-changing safety railing.