Will it look like the inside of a space pod?Will there be robots and nanotechnology? Or is the hotel room of the 21st century destined to be a place that’s customizable and comfortable—a place more like home?

Credit: Gee-ly

At the dazzlingly futuristic Yas Hotel, in Abu Dhabi, the curvilinear buildings are draped with a giant, LED-lit glass veil and straddle a Formula One racetrack. The structure resembles a multicolored UFO waiting to take off. For the inside, the building’s architects, the New York firm Asymptote, had similarly forward-looking ideas: a GPS locator in each room key would open the door without any physical contact—your room would know you were coming. One of the interior walls was envisioned to be a glass surface where “you waved your hand and a perfectly high-resolution TV image would appear,” says Asymptote partner Hani Rashid.

The super-high-tech hotel room seems to have arrived back in 2005, when Zaha Hadid’s smooth, womblike interiors were used on a single floor of the Hotel Silken Puerta América, an architectural theme park of a building in Madrid. Then, in 2008, the Future Hotel Showcase Room cooked up by the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) of Stuttgart, Germany, appeared, taking its cues from Hadid. The LAVA project resembles the inside of a Hollywood spaceship, with curved white walls, sculpted furniture, and no right angles. The only soft surface in the room is a comforter covering a bed set on a platform that supposedly rocks its occupants to sleep. The room has one very appealing technical innovation, anti-jet-lag lighting, and one less promising gadget, a robot bartender. And just last year, W Hotels showed its Extreme Wow Suite of the Future, a “full sensory experience” by Parisian designer Patrick Jouin, at an exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil. It’s yet another Hadid-style womb, anticipating a future in which furniture as we know it will be extinct, the dominant color will be white, and curvy walls will double as TV screens. The Jouin suite is very swank, but not especially revelatory. In Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, Asymptote’s room designs for the Yas were deemed too expensive and too disquieting, and were left on the drawing table. All this raises a question: What if the future doesn’t look like this anymore?

Ask Eric Chiarelli, a senior designer at Hirsch Bedner Associates, the international hospitality design firm, and he’ll reel off a long list of technologies that should be in hotel rooms someday. For instance, he’s excited about “quantum dots,” an outgrowth of nanotechnology, which could be printed on a hotel room’s walls and light the room, continually changing color, intensity, and imagery. His clients, however, are not ready to implement—or pay for—something so very cutting-edge. Chiarelli acknowledges that the way the future really happens is through “smart evolution,” a less jolting form of technologically driven change. Hello, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, good-bye, TV-concealing armoire.

Aside from the fact that hotel-room design tends to progress at an evolutionary pace rather than a revolutionary one, our whole notion of what the future is about seems to be undergoing a profound transition. In the hotel industry, what people talk about when they talk about the future is not so much technology as human values. Words like home, customized, personal, and authenticity come up a lot. “Those are the buzzwords in the industry right now,” says Robin Standefer, who, together with her husband and business partner, Stephen Alesch, runs the New York–based architecture and interior design firm Roman & Williams. The firm is responsible for the interiors of two recently opened New York hotels: the Standard and the Ace. They couldn’t be more different. The Standard, as Standefer puts it, takes the “lack-of-memory escapist approach,” whereas the Ace is crammed with memories, both real and imaginary. And it’s the memory-laden look that Roman & Williams came up with for the Ace that may be the most powerful harbinger of the near future. The rooms resemble loft apartments stocked with retro-chic Smeg refrigerators, working turntables, and vinyl LP’s.

“For Ace, I shopped,” Standefer says. “I found three hundred unique desk chairs.” The custom ethos seems to be popping up everywhere. In Berlin, for instance, the riotously funky Hotel Michelberger is a rehabbed factory building with double-height guest rooms, loft beds, and very human, very personal detritus, like walls tiled with old paperback books. Of course the hotel is wired for broadband, but the look is low-tech. The sales pitch captures the zeitgeist: “Guests are truly guests, staying at the house of a group of friends.…”

Meanwhile, Milan-based Piero Lissoni, a prolific designer who has lent a modern gloss to hotel projects all over the globe, declares, “I like hotels with a lot of humanity. I don’t like purity.” His Studio M hotel, which opened in Singapore in May, is a much tidier version of the Michelberger aesthetic: highly efficient rooms that feature sleeping lofts and cunningly crafted work and storage areas. Even at a mainstream chain like Marriott, chief creative officer Robin Uler says the future is all about “customization,” which might mean something as simple as putting furniture on wheels so that guests can rearrange it.

Maybe the fantasy future still resembles Hadid’s swoopy high-tech womb, but the real future is more likely to involve an extremely efficient manipulation of increasingly scarce square footage…and that calls for right angles. Interior designer Tony Chi, for instance, is now advising his clients—hoteliers such as Mandarin Oriental and Hyatt—that future hotel rooms should be smaller. “The earth’s not getting bigger,” he says. He believes that rooms should be divided up into “zones.” Intensive space planning, he says, can turn a 300-square-foot room into a suite. “There is a zone called the den, like a library, where you can work. Even though it’s small, you are in that little world of yours,” Chi says. “There’s a sleeping alcove, very cozy and comfortable, and you crawl into that cave and sleep.”

Of course, even if the future is cozy, as Chi sees it, high technology isn’t going away. But it will likely be deployed in ways that are more subtle and sophisticated. At Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the world’s most influential architecture firms—the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, was SOM’s design—the partner who heads the interiors department, Stephen Apking, speaks to that point. “People are looking for something that is authentic,” he says. But his version of authenticity is unusually forward-looking. Apking is developing a new type of hotel room that is a direct response to one of our most impressive technological feats: our ability to build super-tall skyscrapers. “We’re doing a lot of tall towers around the world, and a lot of them include hotels,” he says. “We’re trying to think: What would be an authentic experience and design for a room that high up in a building?” One answer might be to incorporate the “expressive structural systems” of the towers into the design of the rooms, using dramatic diagonal beams. And when you’re staying on the 100th floor of a building, you can’t exactly have a balcony, so Apking is experimenting with “sky-viewing chambers.” The rooms at the SOM-designed Lotte Super Tower group of hotels, due to open in Seoul in 2014, might have sober wood-and-leather interiors, but the sky-viewing areas will be done in reflective pearl-colored marble and furnished with low-slung “moon-gazing chairs” angled toward the view.

If the vision of a future involving robot bartenders seems passé, sky-viewing chambers seem perfectly au courant, and so does design that humanizes technology in comfortable ways. Ian Schrager, inventor of the high-design hotel, figures that technology will always have a role to play, but he has banished the recycled Modernism of the boutique hotel room in favor of something more humanistic. Schrager anticipates a back-to-the-1980’s future, “another era of individualism and uniqueness and singular vision.”