2013 06 06 NYT Just Tap Here – Technology and Travel – NYTimes.com
Just Tap Here: Technology and Travel
Published: June 6, 2013 9 Comments
Goodbye, plastic hotel room key. So long, wallet. Farewell, camera.
These days you don’t need any of the above to unlock a hotel room, buy a mojito or snap a vacation photo. All you need is, well — you. At hotels like Alma Barcelona in Spain, a scan of your fingertips opens the door to your room. At Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel in the Mediterranean, you can buy suntan lotion and a sarong with a tap of two fingers. On some Disney Cruise Line ships, facial recognition technology enables onboard photographers to easily group every candid picture they take of you so that you can later browse (read: buy) them.
Like it or not, we are living in an age of human holograms that welcome us to airport security checkpoints and luggage tags capable of texting us when our bags are lost. Technology and travel are becoming ever more fused, even at hotels where for centuries the basic demand has remained unchanged: a safe place to lay one’s head. Today, your head could spin from some of the amenities. At Hotel 1000 in Seattle the rooms have infrared signals that scan and detect body heat to ensure that the housekeeping staff doesn’t knock or barge in, while at Starwood’s Aloft Hotel chain, radio frequency identification allows you to skip the front desk and check in with your smartphone instead (the chain said that more than 10,000 guests have already tried it).
Arguably, the most compelling and unnerving of these technologies is biometrics — the measurement of physical or behavioral traits to verify identity. Once strictly in the realm of spy novels and science fiction flicks, biometrics are increasingly being used by real-world hotels, resorts and cruise ships. For some travelers, it signals a new era of convenience: no more inadvertently demagnetizing your room key or hiding your wallet in your shoe at the pool. For others, it’s yet another zone that Big Brother is penetrating (not to mention making “Mad Men”-style rendezvous less clandestine).
Biometric technology has been around for decades. Hotels in chains like the Four Seasons and Hyatt have used it to track their employees’ hours and whereabouts, and to increase security on their properties. And a handful of hotels in the vanguard — Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Murano Resort and Kube, both in Paris — introduced biometric room keys years ago. (In Boston, Kimpton’s Nine Zero Hotel has a penthouse suite that opens with a flash of your iris.) Even so, many travelers were unaware that biometrics were being deployed.
Now, after years in the background, biometrics are slowly becoming a part of everyday life, popping up in stores, clubs, gyms. One of the most visible travel examples is evident at airports: frequent fliers who have undergone background checks as part of United States programs like Global Entry and Clear can now be seen sailing through security after pausing at kiosks to verify their biometric information through fingerprint and iris scans. Millions of travelers who want to be fast and unfettered have willingly paid the price, both in terms of money ($100 for five years for Global Entry; $179 a year for Clear) and privacy (the applications require personal information like your passport number, fingerprints and photos).
Indeed, the technology has consumer advocacy groups and data privacy experts worried about civil liberties and the protection of personal data. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, for one, has outlined half a dozen areas of concern about biometrics, including how the data is stored and how vulnerable it is to theft or abuse (available at Epic.org/privacy).
Still, new research from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group suggests that biometric identification will only become more prevalent as accuracy improves, eventually giving rise to a “fully automated” check-in, security, border-control and smart-visa system that could improve security and whittle down long lines at airports and borders. “Check in for a flight would be expedited by replacing paper documents with an electronic passport,” explains a summary of the innovations laid out in the report, “as well as biometric traveler identification through fingerprints, facial recognition, or an iris scan.”
Hotels, too, are embracing technology, and not simply by placing iPads in their rooms and lobbies. One of the most eager to adopt biometrics is the Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel. If you think an island vacation ought to consist of a quiet afternoon sprawled on a beach towel and unplugged from the world, don’t bother making a reservation there. Last year, the hotel was using wristbands with radio frequency identification technology, or RFID, which relies on electromagnetic waves, to allow guests to instantly update their Facebook status by swiping the bands against sensors around the property. New this year: biometrics status updates. Guests input their fingerprints at kiosks and from then on, sensors in the “Facebook pillars” around the property allow them to tap two fingers to update their status with messages like, “Hanging out at the Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel … Jealous?”
As Linda Scaperotto, director of marketing for the Palladium Hotel Group, which owns Ushuaïa, put it: “We can’t disconnect from social media even when we’re on a beach in the Mediterranean.”
The pillars, positioned in envy-inducing spots like by the beach and on a rooftop, can take your photo and post it to Facebook, too. Signs remind guests of the raison d’être: “Don’t forget to make your friends jealous.”
But that’s not all you can do by tapping your fingers. “You can pay for your mojito with your fingerprint,” Ms. Scaperotto said. Registering for a cash-free payment system called PayTouch enables guests to buy anything they like — again, with a tap of two fingertips. To use the system, you input your credit card information and your fingerprints into a registration kiosk, and PayTouch links your prints to your card. Voilà, you’re able to buy food, drinks (yes, at the swim-up bar) and souvenirs by swiping your fingertips not only throughout the resort but also at local bars, restaurants and shops.
These sorts of high-tech amenities (which travelers who are concerned about privacy don’t have to use) are not just emerging in far-flung Saturnalias. One of the most prominent players in travel technology is Walt Disney World Resorts, which has been using finger recognition scanners at its park entrances for more than a decade. The finger scanners associate you with your ticket (a plastic card) the first time you use it, which the company said is to help to prevent fraud and make it easier to re-enter the parks. (You can opt out though, and show photo identification instead.) The card is also your room key, and a charge account if you so choose.
But something new is on the horizon: Disney is testing — and later this year will begin rolling out — “MagicBands” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida: radio frequency technology-enabled wristbands that when flicked across mouse ear “touch points” throughout the resort allow you to unlock your room, enter the theme parks, use FastPasses and PhotoPasses, and pay for meals and merchandise (the latter is optional). You can read more about the radio frequency technology and your privacy at Disneyworld.disney.go.com.
Used in conjunction with the My Disney Experience Web site and app, the wristbands will also help personalize various other aspects of your theme park experience. For example, you could register online for a meet-and-greet with a Disney character and input your child’s name. Then, as you approach that character in the park, the MagicBand enables little Bobby or Ella to be greeted by name. Later, the kids can breeze back into the hotel room using their wristbands, never having to ask Mom or Dad for help unlocking the door.
Then again, couldn’t they also go buy themselves $500 worth of Disney memorabilia? As it turns out, no. A PIN will be required for all purchases, and parents can set a spending limit on children’s bands, ensuring that the magic goes only so far.
Follow Stephanie Rosenbloom on Twitter @stephronyt.