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Where did the idea for this project first come from?

Our Executive Chairman Mr Vago is the visionary leader behind many of the innovations that makes MSC Cruises a leader in many areas including environmental technology, guest experience and ship design. He has a passion for technology, something that is part of our DNA.

Mr Vago is constantly looking to future technologies for inspiration for new guest experiences, spotting new trends, and in the instance of the MSC Starship Club, it was robotics and automation that caught his attention and we first started working on this idea back in 2015.

He wanted to bring this to life for guests on MSC Virtuosa, and this is where the Business Innovation team and I started working, with the result being the MSC Startship Club, a futuristic, immersive entertainment lounge concept, completely re-imagining the traditional bar experience

How did you work to bring the idea to life?

It has taken almost six years to bring Rob and the MSC Starship Club to life.

It began with a research phase where we looked to find the right company to provide the technology solution. We looked all over the world - Japan, USA and China, to research labs and leading innovators in Europe, we concluded that there really wasn’t a single way to meet all of our specific needs.

We were able to find specific single elements, such as robotic arms capable of shaking a cocktail, but this concept had been around for a while, and we wanted to create something truly special, something that hadn’t been seen before on a cruise ship.

The real challenge has been to identify a partner who could design the kind of holistic experience we wanted to provide to the guest. Therefore we worked closely with our experience solutions provider - together with many other suppliers to turn our vision into reality.

What was the process of building a custom humanoid robotic bartender?

With our complex goal in mind, we began working with leading experts that specialised in robotics and automation to create our custom-designed humanoid robot bartender.

We started with the functional element of Rob: he needed to mix cocktails, for this we needed robotic arms. These are fairly common in manufacturing, however we wanted to do something not seen before, our humanoid robot needed to operate more like a human, with two arms working together in a collaborative way.

Usually, one robotic arm does a specific task or movement at a time, but for Rob, two arms would need to work together to prepare the cocktails. This was a huge engineering challenge that really pushed the boundaries, as the programming and operation needed to be accurate within tenths of a millimetre to ensure that there were no spillages.

Separately, we also wanted Rob to have a human-like personality, not just a cold machine. Therefore it was important that he was able to interact with guests, meaning he needed to speak, as well as have a ‘face’.

As MSC Cruises welcomes guests from all over the world, speaking one language was not enough, therefore we developed Rob to speak 8 different language, and each of these would need to be programmed, and then tweaked to match the voice perfectly with his LED screen face - together conveying human-like expressions.

Did planning for operation on a cruise ship create extra challenges?

Of course, this project would have been challenging enough on land, but when planning for operation on a cruise ship at open sea, with pitching and rolling caused by waves, we really had to develop Rob with extra care.

One example is one of the last steps in Rob’s cocktail preparation process: he picks up a glass to pour the drink from his shaker. Rob is programmed to pick up a glass at a particular location with pinpoint accuracy, even 1mm of change could cause him to miss or slip with the glass. Therefore we had to create a custom-designed glass delivery system that was able to counteract the movement from the ship, making sure that each and every glass is in exactly the right place, ready for Rob to pick up.

How did you make the MSC Starship club an immersive experience?

Rob is the centrepiece of the MSC Starship Club, but we have also implemented a huge array of interactive and cutting-edge technologies into the lounge to really allow guests to feel as if they have been transported into another world.

The theme running throughout the MSC Starship Club is MSC Cruises’ vision of the spaceship of the future - MSC Starliner One, this vessel, enabled by state-of-the-art technologies, is designed to create a futuristic atmosphere. This includes 3D hologram fans projecting adverts from the future, an immersive digital art wall with outer space weather forecast and fun facts and a 12-seater infinity digital interactive touch-table that gives guests the possibility to explore the solar system with their own personalised galactic tour.

Guests will use specifically designed self-ordering stations in the bar to place their order, either one of the speciality cocktails, or of their own recipe with thousands of possible combinations.

Finally, guests can track the status of cocktail preparation through digital monitors around the area, and a ticker-tape-style LED strip above the robotic island will complete the immersive experience.

How many people were involved in the project?

From Mr Vago through to our Business Innovation, Food & Beverage, designers, and shipbuilding teams, plus all of the suppliers and researchers, over 30 different internal and external stakeholders and departments must have been involved in the project.

One person in particular who was involved in a unique way in the early stage of the project was one of our onboard crew members – we brought this particular barman, who has been making expert cocktails by hand for years, to a special laboratory, fitted him with lots of sensors, then asked him to make lots of different cocktails. The sensors gathered thousands of pieces of data which were used when programming Rob to ensure that his shaking, shirring and mixing was done with the same force to expertly create the cocktails, just as if they had been made by hand.