An Interesting Display Application: Virtual Balconies

By Raverstead

Apparently, cruise ship passengers having an interior room can sometimes find their in-cabin experience a bit claustrophobic. Not surprisingly, one reason for this is the lack of an outside view. Royal Caribbean is addressing this issue in a unique way: with the instillation of so-called virtual balconies. A virtual balcony is based on a large sized display mounted one of the cabin walls and serves to provide passengers with the feeling of a larger space by displaying the sights and sounds of the ocean.

The virtual balconies will be deployed in the cruise ship Navigator of the Seas in 81 of the 643 standard interior cabins. The company’s Quantum of the Seas will have a virtual balcony in every one of the ship’s 373 interior rooms. There will also be smaller virtual balconies in the studio staterooms that accommodate single travellers.

A video illustrating the virtual balcony in operation can be found here In the video, it can be seen that the 80″ LCD screen stretches from nearly the floor to ceiling. Note that a realistic banister is included in the imagery.

The need for a banister was made clear by tests conducted by Royal Caribbean. The tests consisted of presenting a simulated virtual balcony to a group of 30 to 40 346. One result was that some 346 in the test group felt that the open ocean view to be unnerving because there was nothing to keep them from “falling out” of the window. This response was offered most often when the simulated ship was “moving” through simulated rough seas.

The details of the banisters were addressed by Control Group (New York, NY), the concept design company behind the virtual balconies. “Designers wanted to create virtual banisters and even balusters, the vertical poles that hold the banisters in place. But the banister had to appear to be outside the window, like on a real balcony. And that created a whole new set of visual challenges, because the look of a real banister changes all the time as the sun and the ship change directions. The answer was to incorporate sun movement charts and powerful GPS data to add “real” shadows and highlights to the virtual banisters. At the same time, they decided not to put virtual glass between the balusters”.

The live video feed is provided by RED Epic cinematic cameras mounted at various places on the ship. Tim Mattison of the Control Group explained that RED was the only qualified camera company that was willing to warranty their product to run indefinitely. According to RED, the Royal Caribbean application will have the record for the longest running RED camera.

The RED camera supports 4k resolution and up to 240 frames per second. At this time, however, the output is down sampled to the native resolution of the virtual balcony’s LCD. In the future and given a few system improvements, the virtual balcony could be upgraded to deliver a true 4k experience.

Mattison explained that to provide “….an authentic view they wanted to make sure that 346 couldn’t change the view. At least for now. If you had a real balcony, you can’t just say I’d want to see the balcony on the other side”. He went on to state that, “If 346 are interested in it, it’s totally possible”.

Consistent with the idea that the virtual balcony provide an authentic experience, there are no plans to have the screens present any imagery other than views captured by the cameras.

Among the issues addressed by the developers in designing the system was the need to assure that the imagery presented on the virtual balcony did not make passengers seasick.

“When you’re on a ship, your body is constantly moving. You’re experiencing roll side-to-side or maybe subtle movements. We wanted to be sure that when we provide this image that the image is matching what we’re feeling when we stand on that ship and our bodies moving around”.

To minimize undesired motion related effects, it was found that the display must be on a wall that faces the same way as the camera. In this way, the movement of the ship is consistent with the imagery.

In addition, it was found necessary to minimize latency between the image captured by the cameras and the image presented by the displays. This was accomplished by using fiber-optic cables, custom software and high powered servers and processors.

Beyond providing passengers with an enhanced cruising experience, the incentive for installing the virtual balconies is, as might be expected, driven by the motive for profit. The virtual balcony rooms are priced on average about $200-$400 more than a standard interior cabin. Note that this is also about $300 per person less than a real standard balcony cabin.

It is interesting to speculate on other applications of virtual window technology. One particular example that comes to mind is of an inner city apartment. The imagined apartment has a window but the view through the widow is “unattractive” such as, for example, of an air shaft. In this scenario, more desirable imagery is presented on the window mounted display. The imagery could, perhaps, be pre-recorded in the mountains or in the forest. This scenario may sound a little familiar to fans of science fiction. I refer the reader to the idea of “slow glass” featured in the 1966 Nebula and Hugo award winning short story “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw. – Arthur Berman

Control Group, Max Oglesbee, 212-343-2525 X4,