Definitely Doug 3/24/23: Is This a Real-Life Hotel Innovation Lab?

by Doug Rice

This week I want to focus on an emerging tech-forward hospitality company that is pushing the envelope of innovation. Most of its technological developments service its own unique needs in a market that has yet to emerge. But several of its core technologies could well be applicable in mainstream hotels. My crystal ball is not clear enough to say which ones, how soon, or who will find success with them, but to me they are well worth watching.

The company, Ocean Builders, has completed a first prototype of a unique hotel experience. It is now ramping up to start deployment while continuing to refine the product. The basic concept is self-contained hotel pods, called SeaPods. Each pod has one guest accommodation unit, which sits above an anchored, floating underwater base in a body of water. The accommodation pod rests on a vertical column, well above the water, and includes a kitchen, bath, bedroom, and living area (see photo).  It reminds me of the Skypad Apartments that George Jetson and his family lived in in the 1960s TV cartoon show, but it’s a single-unit version designed to serve as a luxury hotel unit on the water.

First, a little context on the SeaPod units themselves. The underwater base is anchored in place far enough under the waterline to provide stability against waves, which affect only the thin central column that houses a spiral staircase. A circular deck with optional floating arms on top of the water can be used for boat docking, diving platforms, solar panels, charging ports for paddleboards, and other needs. The units are designed to be highly sustainable and (depending on location) even self-sufficient. They even include a coral restoration capability.

The prototype unit has continued to evolve as the company experiments with different solutions to meet specific requirements that may depend on where the units are to be deployed as well as the target audience. The company is in advanced negotiations with several potential sites across multiple continents. While the original concept is floating resorts, they have also found interest in remote land-based units, such as wildlife safari parks or other natural areas, where the concept could redefine the notion of a “room with a view.” For water deployments, they are working on a unit with an underwater “reverse fish tank” where the fish can watch the people (and vice versa).

If you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth a quick tour of the company’s website to better understand their vision and progress, and some of the configuration options they are working on. To be sure, most of these don’t exist today, but there is a prototype unit that’s real enough that I was offered the opportunity to experience it myself on an overnight stay, and I hope to do so soon.

My interest today is not in the concept of SeaPods as a hospitality option (although I do find that very intriguing), but rather the technologies the company has acquired or developed to create them. Many are likely ready-for-prime-time in select high-end resort developments today. They may well find their way into more mainstream hotels in the future. So look at some of the technologies that underlie SeaPods.

Ocean Builders is purchasing some of these technologies from existing suppliers, acting more as the technology integrator than as a technology builder. Others, mostly those that involve smart tech, were designed in-house to ensure compatibility with marine environments as well as to minimize electromagnetic frequency outputs. Aside from the smart tech, if something they’re doing seems applicable to one of your properties, there’s a good chance you can procure it as well.

The Personal Configurator

When you first stay in a SeaPod, you receive a personal wearable device (initially a ring) and a phone app to configure it. You enter your personal preferences and programmed orchestrations (behaviors you want in response to things you do). When you arrive at a unit, you can use the wearable device to “swipe in,” or biometrics such as Face ID are also an option. Either way, the unit immediately configures itself to your preferences and routines.

This goes well beyond the basics of mood lighting and temperature control; it allows you to set up routines, such as starting the coffee when a sensor detects you have gotten out of bed, but only if it’s after 7am. You and your partner can each program your preferred shower temperature, pressure, and whether and when you want the rain shower, handheld, or body massage jets. Fans of the Wim Hof shower can even have the shower finish with a cold shot to boost their immune system. You can open and close skylights, or program the blinds to open very gradually to wake you up in the morning. You can set up background music.

If you are staying with your spouse, you each get your own device and can set it up to your own preferences, at least for aspects of the stay that aren’t shared. If the guest with the “master” ring leaves the unit and the other stays, the other guest’s preferences can take over until the first guest returns. If you both leave the unit, the system knows that and can take appropriate actions to reduce energy usage. The wearable will soon be able to track your location within the unit so that if two people are using different rooms, each room can be personalized to their preferences.

Sustainability Technologies

Some of the more interesting innovations surround water and energy usage. As self-contained units not attached to land, they need solutions for water, power, and waste – and the company has found them and is continuing to evolve them. Electricity is generated using widely available roof-based solar capture and storage systems, but many of the other technologies are quite innovative.

Water is collected from rain, which is available in sufficient quantity in many of the initial planned locations. Water usage is minimized by multiple recycling technologies. Rainwater is filtered for sediment as well as using ultraviolet light and other methods to produce water for regular household use and for drinking.  Shower water is recycled using an open-source technology from Shower Loop that collects, cleans and reuses water in real time while you are showering; Shower Loop technology reduces water consumption by about 75% and energy for heating water by 70-90%.

Ocean Builders is currently adding a system that detects contaminant levels in shower water, allowing it to divert soapy water into a different recovery process. It is also evaluating other filtration systems, including one that can recycle and clean both gray water and black water. While the systems they are looking at would be appropriate for installation in individual SeaPod units and cost about $4,500, they are also available in much larger sizes (and lower cost per unit serviced) that could be used in new-build mainstream hotels wherever water is scarce and/or environmental aspects are critical. Depending on post-treatment filtration, the water can be recycled for shower, dishwasher, laundry, and even human consumption (although the “ick” factor might make the last option inadvisable). The units are designed to last for decades with annual maintenance that takes just a few hours.

The company performs extensive monitoring of water and energy usage, largely at the device level, and even differentiates hot vs. cold water use. They are starting to look at big data analytics to optimize the environmental footprint. For example, if a guest enters the unit and wants it cooler, the standard approach of turning on the air conditioner may not be ideal. They anticipate more customized processes such as starting by opening skylights to let hot air escape first, or adjusting shades that are facing direct sun; such actions could reduce the energy needed to cool the unit down. And as the product is somewhat targeted at eco-conscious guests, they see gamification of energy and water usage statistics as another possibility for the future, enabling guests to understand the impact of their usage patterns and encouraging them to use less.

The Bed Presence Sensor

The dual-zone bed presence sensor detects when either of the bed’s occupants gets in or out of bed. This can trigger action sequences that are personalized based on who gets up and when. In the middle of the night it might turn on floor lighting to illuminate the way to the bathroom; at 7am it might start coffee for one occupant or hot water for tea for the other.

Weather Sensors

Because SeaPods are solar powered, collect rainwater, and meter everything, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise to detect and respond to weather events. While not yet implemented, the units are designed to be able to close windows if it starts raining or open them when it stops. Window shades or variable-tint windows can adjust to sunlight levels and direction.

Room Service?

Since SeaPods will typically be located offshore or in remote locations, a solution was needed for delivering meals or groceries. Drones are used to accomplish this – you order online, the kitchen or pantry prepares your order, and the drone delivers it. This approach works when the pods are sufficiently remote, but drones with adequate carrying capacity are noisy, so other solutions are needed if the units are close together.

Lessons Learned

What struck me from my conversations with Ocean Builders is how entrenched most hotels are in thinking that the proven technologies of yesterday are still the best for the future. We have seen enormous technological innovation in recent decades in power generation, storage, and distribution; in water management; in sensor technology; in personalization; and in big data. Many of these developments have reached a stage of maturity and cost effectiveness that make them applicable to mainstream hospitality, at least in some locations and for some use cases.

Maybe it’s time to start looking at them and asking how tomorrow’s hotels should be built!

Douglas Rice

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