How wearable tech is changing the way we travel, for business and leisure

From ordering drinks on a cruise ship and making travel paper-free to measuring your swim in the hotel pool and even cleaning up the air you breathe, wearables are going places

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 4:31pm

Travel used to be about finding yourself, but now there are apps for that. We book flights on our phones, mapping apps guide us around unfamiliar cities, and social media check-ins record our progress. Entire trips are formed, photographed and filmed using only a smartphone.

Now it’s time for the next phase; wanderlust with wearables. Smartphones may have become the ultimate travel gadget years ago, but the travel industry is now beginning to embrace other connected devices that threaten to make travellers themselves part of the increasingly global Internet of Things.

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One of the most unexpected is the Ocean Medallion. Unveiled in January by the world’s largest cruise company Carnival – owner of Princess Cruises among others – this tiny 50g disc acts as a “personal concierge” for guests. Worn as a pendant on a wristband, in a clip, or just put in a pocket, the wearer gets all kinds of unusual benefits that, on a cruise ship, could make a trip go much more smoothly. The disc acts not only as a ticket for the trip, streamlining the boarding process, but also as the door key to a cabin. It’s used to pay for everything on board, acting like an e-wallet or contactless card, Apple Pay or Hong Kong’s Octopus card.

Worn on a wrist, the disc itself is laser-etched with the guest’s name, ship and the date of sailing, but it’s much more than a souvenir. It uses the kind of technology embedded in smartphones, including chips that enable Near Field Communication (NFC) and Bluetooth, all designed to be invisible to the guest, who doesn’t need to switch it on or off, recharge it or interact with it in any way.

Those happy to download an app called Ocean Compass to their phone can use the embedded technology in the disc to do other things such as find their way around the ship, or locate their travel companions. You can even order a drink from anywhere on the ship, and a bartender will deliver it to you, wherever you are. Due to launch on Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess in November 2017, followed by Royal Princess and Caribbean Princess in 2018, it all works around a purpose-built Internet of Things network of intelligent sensors and devices, but a cruise ship is a closed, controlled and customised place. Could this kind of connectivity work for travellers in the wider world?

It already is. The Ocean Medallion builds upon the MagicBand wearables found at some of Disney’s theme parks, but it’s much like a smartwatch, something that’s also been embraced by the travel industry in recent years.

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Sales figures of the likes of Apple Watch and Android Wear smart watches hit a high of 8.2 million in the three months ended December 31 last year, and they do have some novel uses in airports, hotels and elsewhere. Starwood’s Aloft, Element and W hotels have been allowing guests to get into their rooms using a smart watch since 2014, and last year expanded the capability to its Le Méridien, Westin, Sheraton and Four Points hotels. According to Starwood, it’s a feature that’s proved most popular in the US, China, Canada, the UK and Hong Kong.

What’s arguably much more useful to travellers is the ability to use mapping apps from Apple and Google in-wrist to navigate unfamiliar surroundings; a haptic buzz lets you know which way to turn, which cuts out the need to walk around strange cities while brandishing an expensive smartphone. Apple Watch and Android Wear watches can also be used as boarding passes on most major airlines.

The smart money is on so-called hybrid smartwatches soon taking over completely among the business traveller clique. They may not be able to show boarding passes, but the likes of the Emporio Armani EA Connected Watch, a Bluetooth-powered hybrid watch that automatically changes time zones and controls a phone’s music – all from behind a traditional clock face – makes them handy enough when on the go.

Probably the most common wearable device is the activity tracker, wristbands such as the Fitbit and Jawbone that act largely as step counters. That’s great for those of us who want to see where, and how far, we’ve walked during a day’s sightseeing, or during a morning run, but the latest activity trackers are much smarter than that. For those for whom a dip in the hotel pool is the only exercise they have time for on business trips, the waterproof Misfit Shine 2 Swimmer’s Edition (HK$1,049, expansys.com.hk) is worth investigating if you want data and set goals to achieve. Meanwhile, the Withings Steel HR (HK$1,888, jselect.hk) follows the analogue trend by pairing step counting with heart rate monitoring behind a traditional display and, best of all, a 25-day battery.

Business travellers looking to get some work done on the plane will also likely favour another brand new class of “hearable” wearable, the noise-cancelling earplug. Headphones with the pilot-grade silencing tech have been around for years, but they’re bulky, battery-hungry, and designed to allow music to blot out the 80 decibel noise in the cabin.

Developed by two ex-Nokia engineers in Finland, the soon-to-be-released QuietOn (quieton.com) earplugs produce phase-shifted sound that cancels out white noise in the cabin to create silence. “The QuietOn project started from the need of saving the air passengers from the weariness of continuous air plane cabin noise,” says Olli Remes, global sales director at QuietOn. “The greatest benefit of active noise cancellation technology is that it reduces the low frequency sounds that ordinary earplugs are not able to address.”

They come in a handy carry-on box that also works as the charger, though their batteries keep going for about 50 hours.

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Performing a similar function are the InspEar Active (inspear.com) “bionic earbuds”, which add a microphone that makes it possible to talk to Siri or Google Assistant on your smartphone, get real-time translation, and directions from mapping apps.

Knowing where you’re going is one thing, but are you even fit to travel? For travellers doing a lot of driving when they reach their destination there are biosensor wearables coming soon that monitor your blood-alcohol levels. Announced in January and available later this year, BACtrack Skyn (bactrack.com) continuously tracks your alcohol level in near real-time, sending you a notification when your alcohol level is increasing to remind you to stop drinking, no breathalyser required. Instead, it measures ethanol molecules in the perspiration on your skin, as does Proof from Milo Sensor (milosensor.com).

A whole new class of wearable device for travellers, the enviro-tracker makes sure you don’t overdose on smog. Packed with sensors and even an optical laser that measures air for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and even UV light, the TZOA Wearable Air Quality Tracker (tzoa.com) uses Bluetooth to send your phone a real-time air quality report. It also produces crowdsourced air quality maps of the cities it’s used in.

There are now wearables that will clean the air you’re travelling through. Containing a sensor that detects bacteria, pollen and pollution up to level of PM0.1 – ultra-fine particles – French outfit Clausette’s Wair (www.wair.fr) anti-pollution scarf removes the nasties using a filter. Like the TZOA, it crowdsources data from other wearers and suggests routes around a city to avoid pollution.

Now that’s a wearable that could really clean up among travellers to big Asian cities such as Delhi, Hanoi and Beijing.