Tech Talk

An ongoing tidal wave of technology is powering up mind-boggling additions to the toolkit designers can use to shape hotels.

Every day, it seems, a new tech wrinkle is being introduced into hotels: Artwork hanging on walls that changes daily, thanks to the use of “digital canvasses;” corridor lighting schemes that evolve as the day progresses (light and bright in the morning; soft and soothing in the evening); and voice-activated systems that allow guests to dial down the air conditioning when the room feels too hot or to turn on the lights before getting out of bed.

Digital Canvases

Those aren’t paintings hanging on the wall of this lounge area within the Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills hotel. They’re “digital canvasses” created by Daylighted. The images on the screens can be changed at will—and reproductions can be ordered on the adjoining touchscreen. Photo: Courtesy of Daylighted

These installations aren’t sci-fi, they’re real time: the digital canvasses are in place at the Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills hotel; the color-changing corridors are being tested on the 17th floor of the Quin hotel in New York; and the voice-activated rooms are operating at the Aloft hotels in Boston and Santa Clara, California.

This technological infusion into hotel spaces is likely to accelerate, part of what futurist James Canton describes as an ongoing “data tsunami.” Canton’s organization, the Institute for Global Futures (IGF), was recently commissioned by online booking agent to assess what impact that cyber storm will have on hotels over the next several decades.

Sleep Pods

Bye-bye beds: Hotels of the future may well be equipped with sleep pods that allow guests to access programs of their dreams that will be channeled directly into their brains via a neuro-technology link. Image: Courtesy of the Institute for Global Futures

“Trends in technology, science, energy and entertainment will vastly change the hotel experience for travellers,” says Canton, founder and CEO of the IGF, a think-tank that does deep data dives to identify the latest consumer trends. “The emergence of a new travel design science, which is a combination of using big data, artificial intelligence and predicting travellers’ dreams, will mean the whole travel experience will change.”

LumiFi in hotel hallway

Lighting schemes for hotel hallways that change by the time of day, produced by LumiFi, are being tested on one floor of The Quin hotel in New York. Images: Courtesy of LumiFi

Based on that premise, the IGF formulated some specific predictions on how technology will impact the look, feel and operations of hotels by the year 2060. Here are some highlights:

  • 3D Makers in Every Room
    The need to pack clothes and other amenities when traveling will be a thing of the past. The reason: Hotel rooms of the future will be equipped with next-generation 3D printers, called 3D makers, which will be able to quickly generate clothing and such accessories as razors and toothbrushes.
  • Crowdsourced Pop-Ups
    Future temporary hotels will have their themes and locations decided by digitally cast votes from travelers. The designs that win the most votes will be programmed to self-assemble using large-scale 3D printers.
  • Neuro-Dreaming
    The traditional hotel bed will be replaced by pod-like sleep chambers with adjoining curved screens that will give occupants access to programs of their own dreams that can be channeled directly into their brains via a neuro-technology link.
  • DNA-Based Longevity Spas
    The days of a getting a simple facial or massage at hotel spa will vanish, replaced by spaces equipped with devices that perform a DNA analysis of the guest, then provide services designed to promote not just wellness, but longevity. Spa offerings will include genetic-based medicine treatments and mind-refreshing drugs.

Clearly, some quantum leaps in technology still need to take place before the above predictions become a reality. But what about the here and now? Which current innovations truly enhance the guest experience—and which don’t?

Interactive Screens

In hotel rooms of the future, most surfaces will be equipped with interactive screens offering information or control over the environment (lighting, temperature, etc.). Image: Courtesy of The Institute of Global Futures

Several major hotel brands have taken a proactive stance when it comes to answering the latter question. That includes Marriott Intl. and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which in recent months revealed plans to take two distinctly different paths for doing so. Marriott is experimenting with its latest tech concepts in a real-world setting—an existing hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina—while Four Seasons has created an in-house lab at its Toronto headquarters.

Future Hotel Spas

By 2060, hotel spas will offer DNA-based treatments designed to boost longevity. Image: Courtesy of The Institute of Global Futures

The Four Seasons facility, dubbed the Research and Discovery Studio (R&D Studio), is decked out with graffiti-style artwork, communal meeting and work spaces and multiple areas for experimenting with design models and amenities.

The studio’s centerpiece is a space where the hotelier’s in-house team builds 3D guest room replicas entirely of cardboard. Designed to scale and customized with cardboard reproductions of FF&E and architectural elements, the modular room was created to give designers the opportunity to test unusual layouts and challenging room designs in a cost-effective manner prior to producing a model room.

“We use the R&D Studio to explore rooms that can serve multiple purposes—rooms that give our guests greater freedom and control to use the space as they choose,” says Dana Kalczak, the hotelier’s vice president, design. “A guest room used to have fixed features—you sleep here, you pour coffee there, you work in one corner and relax in the other. But mobile devices have changed this dynamic. You no longer need to sit at a rectangular wooden desk to ‘work.’ You can just as easily email and take calls from a sofa or from the bed.”

Four Seasons R&D Lab

Four Seasons' R&D lab has plenty of space for designers to test out 3D versions of modular room designs. Photo: Courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Meantime, last fall, Marriott Hotels (the hotelier’s flagship brand) opened what it dubbed the M Beta at Charlotte Marriott City Center, a working hotel that doubles as an innovation lab showcasing the brand’s latest concepts. Those offerings include the LG Studio, the first iteration of a new partnership between the hotel and appliance brand that features an LG-equipped kitchen in the hotel’s meeting space, and the Flex Fitness program, which gives guests access to on-demand group and personal workouts via screens in the hotel’s fitness studio and guest rooms. After trying out those features and others, users can grade them by pressing a set of “beta buttons.” The information gleaned from that input is aggregated and presented in real time via digital screens, as well as online.

M Beta

At the M Beta at Charlotte Marriott City Center hotel, the hotelier has installed a series of "beta buttons" to gauge guest response to new features. Photo: Courtesy of Marriott Intl.

“We are inviting guests to be part of the innovation and decision making,” says Mike Dearing, managing director, Marriott Hotels. (More recently, Marriott opened a pop-up innovation lab, with similar consumer feedback features for its Aloft and Element brands, in a tent adjacent to the JW Marriott at L.A. Live during the Americas Lodging Investment Summit.)

These incubators are just one of many ways that hoteliers are seeking to assess how advances in digital technology will impact hotel environments in the years to come. For the designers of such spaces, that means “innovate or die” is more than a catchphrase—it’s an imperative.