Princess Cruises' OceanMedallion, finally finding its sea legs, sprints

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ABOARD THE CARIBBEAN PRINCESS -- There's a bit of magic in the OceanMedallion, the wearable disc that Princess Cruises has been gradually rolling out on several ships for more than a year.

For me, the magic was best demonstrated when walking down the hallway toward my cabin. By the time I was six feet from the door, I could see a little light on a display next to my cabin illuminate, signaling that it had recognized me.

When I reached the door, the electronic lock on the latch changed from red to green, opening the lock.

I didn't have to tap anything against the door. I simply twisted the handle and walked in. The only thing that might make the process more convenient would be to add a mechanism to open the door for me.

I have no way of knowing if that's in the works, but I do know that there's a lot of latent capability being built into the infrastructure that's running the OceanMedallion magic and that there are OceanMedallion 2.0 features being readied even as the kinks and quirks of the initial effort are being worked out.

Perhaps the best way to think about the OceanMedallion is not as one big deal but rather as a collection of small conveniences and improvements to the cruise experience that add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

Individually, improvements like room locks that open themselves aren't going to revolutionize anyone's vacation. But by attaching so many improvements to one small device, Princess has been able to achieve one of its goals, namely making the OceanMedallion a simple, invisible way to take friction out of a cruise.

The Medallion functions on two levels: on its own and in tandem with an app that runs on a passenger's smartphone.

On a cruise in the Eastern Caribbean last week, almost everyone was taking advantage of the former, but far fewer were involved enough to take advantage of the latter.

Expectations for the OceanMedallion were high after a splashy introduction by Carnival Corp. chairman Arnold Donald at the 2017 CES show in Las Vegas.

But while Carnival began installing the gear to run the device on Princess ships in 2017, it has taken until now for it to work well enough to be ready to demonstrate to the travel media.

In several days of use, I found that the device worked as advertised about 95% of the time. Occasionally it would take two tries to bring an app to life, but my cabin always unlocked, and my shipmates were always present in the "find my family" function.

I talked to a few fellow passengers who weren't so lucky. One said her Medallion was being replaced because it didn't open her door. Another said the app dropped some of the shipmates she had previously entered.

I suspect fine-tuning is ongoing.

When its stand-alone functions are deployed, the Medallion is beyond easy to use. Embarkation and door opening were automatic. In paying for items onboard, there are no tedious signatures required or receipt scraps to clog my pockets.

The Medallion also functions in the background to improve the muster drill. On a 3-by-5-foot electronic display on the bridge, safety officers can track every passenger's check-in status in real time. Without the Medallion, they depend on radio reports from muster station workers.

Caribbean Princess Capt. Marco Fortezze said that the Medallion has cut the length of the drill by 15 to 20 minutes.

That's a tangible benefit in my book.

One of the most exciting potential uses of the Medallion has been to order food and drink and have it find you wherever you are on the ship. That begins to move into functions that require use of smartphone apps, which in turn means downloads from the app store, profiles to set up and passwords to remember.

For passengers who are not digital natives or not especially keen on having the Medallion to begin with, it might seem like too much bother. But let's say guests download all five apps to multiply the Medallion's functionality. What do they get?

Food and beverage delivery, to me, is at the top of the list. On the first day of my cruise, I sat next to Neptune's Reef and Pool on Deck 15 and opened the OceanNow app. (All the apps are called Ocean-something. It is a little off-putting at first, but I got used to it.)

The app displayed photo bubbles, a cheeseburger in one, fries in another and so on. I ordered the burger, and eight minutes later it was on a plate in front of me. One fly in the ointment is that I had hoped to order a gourmet Ernesto Burger, a specialty that is on the Salty Dog Grill menu but not yet on the app.

A second app that seemed useful was OceanCompass, which combines wayfinding and tracking functions. I used it, for example, to quickly find a restroom when the need was urgent. I can also know where anyone is on the ship in real time as long as they have given me permission through the app to track their locations. I found it very useful in arranging meet-ups.

Wayfinding can also be done through digital screens in every elevator landing and lobby. A nice touch-screen display of daily ship activities has been created that graphically shows the where, what and when.

Games are loaded for families (PlayOcean) and gamblers (OceanCasino), and a collection of the shows Carnival Corp. has been producing for Saturday morning TV is available in OceanView.

Getting the most from OceanMedallion requires a commitment to using it until it becomes familiar. That might be a lot to ask of people who are primarily on a ship to enjoy a vacation. But over time, passengers, especially repeat cruisers, will become more accustomed to the new technology and really begin to benefit from Carnival's investment in OceanMedallion.

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