Amazing Travel Inventions You May See on Your Next Trip
From robot room service to shoes that give directions, seven innovations you're about to encounter.
1. Hyper-Wired Museums
Early in the last century, when the American Museum of Natural History in New York began placing taxidermied animals in the “natural” context of dioramas instead of traditional glass cases, some observers were aghast. Critics accused curators of popularizing science and emphasizing entertainment over research.
“It was cutting-edge at the time, and the museum was accused of dumbing things down,” says Jake Barton, principal of the renowned New York exhibition-design firm Local Projects. He sees the dioramas as a pioneering step toward today’s visitor-oriented museums: “It began transferring the focus from things to people.”
Today that process continues with technology, which is revolutionizing how we engage with storied institutions. New techniques are eliminating barriers, enhancing the visitor experience, and expanding accessibility. And as we integrate more technology, especially social media, into our lives, museums are using such tools to attract more visitors—and followers.
The trend points toward immersion and interaction. For “New York at Its Core,” an exhibition opening in November at the Museum of the City of New York, Local Projects and Studio Joseph designed the Future City Lab, which allows visitors to create their own Gothams, complete with parks, shops, and housing. You can see yourself in your streetscape, and export a video of your vision to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. For the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, Local Projects helped build the BioDesign Studio, where visitors can play with DNA-sequencing technology and “edit” bacteria. “You can cut and paste different parts of DNA, and see an actual organism grow,” Barton explains. “You’re authoring new life-forms. It’s crazy.” Dave Medal/Courtesy of Local Projects
Technology also allows people to “visit” an institution without leaving home. By 2020, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum will complete the eight-year process of uploading images of all the 1 million pieces in its collection—Rembrandts, Vermeers, delft pots, and Chinese plates. Other institutions have digitized parts of their collections, but the Rijksmuseum’s effort is the most ambitious—and the most democratic: users can download and manipulate images royalty-free at the online Rijksstudio.
More technology isn’t always better for the visitor. When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (sfmoma) expanded recently, its digital team, led by Keir Winesmith, pondered a suitable tech upgrade. “We didn’t want to innovate for innovation’s sake,” he says. Winesmith’s team nixed 3-D, virtual reality, and augmented reality in favor of a new iOS app and audio tour developed with Detour, a start-up specializing in GPS-enabled walking tours, and Apple, which deployed its location-based technology indoors. Unlike most audio tours, which require you to input a number indicating your position, the app calculates your location using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi access points, and the accelerometers and pedometers built in to Apple devices. (No Apple device? You can rent one on site; an Android app is in the works.)
The tours are led by a diverse collection of guides—Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr, from HBO’s Silicon Valley, debate whether Marcel Duchamp’s work is art or junk. An app-aided stroll through sfmoma feels “as if you had friends walking with you,” Winesmith says. Disembodied, chatty friends—it’s eerie. I took philosopher Alva Noë’s tour, and he directed my steps, telling me to meet him in the next room, or past the elevators. When I arrived, he’d simply start speaking again. Noë’s commentary was rooted in philosophy but totally unpretentious; he said of one piece (no spoilers!), “This looks, well, like garbage!” but then he went on to praise it.
As we regarded a Lee Krasner painting, Noë likened it to “a work of choreography.” You could say the same of the app. Technology is a tool. Used well, it enhances the museum-going experience, forging smarter, faster connections to the work. But it has its limits. As Winesmith says, “If the story is boring, it won’t matter how good the technology is. Photo-Illustration by Jesse Lenz (Source Photos: Getty Images)
2. The Global Workation
Blending elements of Airbnb and WeWork, peripatetic start-ups are bringing new meaning to the phrase business trip.
If it is now possible to work anywhere in the world, why not work everywhere in the world? That’s the proposition of a new generation of businesses, including Remote Year, a mobile live/work program. Last May, its first group of 75 members wrapped up a year of living and laboring around the globe. Each month they moved to a different city, including Buenos Aires, Prague, and Kyoto, Japan. For $27,000 a year, Remote Year provided lodging, co-working spaces, and transportation. Of its six current groups, half keep Western hours so, say, a consultant isn’t asleep in Shanghai when a conference call is held in New York.
Similarly, Hacker Paradise sends programmers on whirlwind working vacations for a fee that starts at $350 a week, while Estonia-based e-marketplace Jobbatical matches tech workers with overseas gigs (a.k.a. “career adventures”). Some companies are simply designing spaces with globe-trotting professionals in mind. In Amsterdam, Zoku just launched a “work-meets-play hotel,” a collection of lofts arranged around collaborative spaces.
“You feel like you’re constantly doing something worthwhile with your time,” Charles Du, a former NASA scientist, said from Cuzco, Peru, where he was part of the third Remote Year class. “It makes us more than travelers—it makes us explorers.”
3. Think Tank Resorts
For some developers and hoteliers, it’s no longer enough to build a hotel: you have to create an ideas community.
Claus Sendlinger has long been ahead of the curve. When he founded Design Hotels in 1993, the boutique-hotel concept was in a nascent stage. Now Sendlinger is on to his next big thing: creating a multi-hyphenate resort that’s part hotel, part members’ club, and part idea incubator for the creative class.
This year, he debuted La Granja Ibiza (lagranjaibiza.com; doubles from $500), an 11-room guesthouse on a farm in the heart of the Spanish island. The activities available for a small charge include yoga, Slow Food workshops, and lectures on the future of mobile societies, and aim to attract like-minded vacationers. Locals are welcome, too; a $220 annual membership fee provides access to events and lectures (for overnight guests, a membership is built in to the rate). “It’s all about dynamic collaboration,” says Sendlinger, who plans to expand to other locations.
Similar projects are springing up, on different scales and with different levels of inclusiveness. Set on a previously uninhabited island in Croatia, Obonjan (otokobonjan.com; from $65 per person per night) is a seasonal resort-festival that accommodates up to 500 guests. The draw: highly curated, experiential fun, including marine- conservation workshops, underwater art exhibits, and movie nights under the stars. Spread over 10,000 acres in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, Summit Powder Mountain (summitpowdermountain.com), which broke ground in 2013, is hoping to be a next-gen ski village, complete with private residences, co-working spaces, a recording studio, a culinary school, and, eventually, several hotels. The town serves as an extension of Summit Series, invite-only networking events for wealthy individuals and thought leaders; early investors include Tim Ferriss and Richard Branson. Some programs and events will be open to the public, while others will remain exclusive to Summit members. Photo-Illustration by Jesse Lenz (Source Photos: Getty Images)
4. Teched-Out Hotels
Lighting does more than provide illumination—it can also enhance your mood. Guests at St. Martins Lane, in London, can select from a spectrum of colored LEDs. Give your room a calming blue glow or a red hue for more energy. The Stay Well rooms at the MGM Grand Las Vegas as well as six Marriott properties offer bright white lighting to reduce jet lag and circadian bedside lighting to promote better sleep.
Want to check the weather report or turn up the air- conditioning? All you have to do is ask. The Aloft Santa Clara, in California, and the Aloft Boston Seaport piloted the first-ever voice- activated rooms, powered by Siri and Apple HomeKit, this past summer.
Your Phone, In Charge
Land lines, keys, and remote controls may soon go extinct. Apps similar to Apple’s HomeKit are being rolled out at Dream Hotels, letting guests manage everything from lighting to restaurant reservations from their phones. Proper Hotels and the DoubleTree by Hilton in Park City, Utah, are introducing apps that unlock guest rooms. And the Aloft New Orleans Downtown was the first hotel with RoomCast, which lets guests securely stream video from their devices to their room TVs.
Robots to the Rescue
Select properties from Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Inter-Continental Hotels deploy a robot named Relay to deliver snacks and amenities to rooms, preventing the awkwardness of receiving that 2 a.m. burger while wearing your pajamas. Jean Revillard/Getty Images
5. Zero-Emission Planes
Some revolutions happen slowly—in this case, at around 46 mph. In July, Swiss scientists and adventurers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg completed the first around-the-world flight powered entirely by the sun. Their Solar Impulse Two was built not for comfort or speed (it averaged less than highway speed) but for efficiency. Piccard, 58, and Borschberg, 63, flew 17 exhausting alternating legs, the longest (from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii) clocking in at 117 hours, 52 minutes. They generated zero emissions along the way. The team wanted to demonstrate the viability of clean energy in air travel, and while they admit that solar jumbo jets are years off—we can’t currently get enough power from the sun to fly them—experimental aircraft such as NASA’s battery-powered X-57 passenger plane are exploring new ground. “I bet in ten years, electric planes will transport fifty people, commercially,” Piccard says.
6. Inside The Solar Impulse Two
Each propeller engine generates 17.4 horsepower. By comparison, a typical John Deere riding mower’s engine generates roughly 22.
Temperatures in the unpressurized cockpit range from -4 to 95 degrees, so pilots are equipped with oxygen as well as special clothing. The seat reclines for power naps.
The 236-foot wingspan is longer than a Dreamliner’s and supports more than 17,000 solar cells.
The plane weighs about 2.5 tons—less than a Cadillac Escalade—to help maintain lift and conserve energy. Photo-Illustration by Jesse Lenz (Source Photos: Getty Images)
7. Omnipotent Travel-Planning Machines
It’s the next thing in travel booking: companies are leveraging artificial intelligence to offer the personalized touch that used to come from agents alone, but delivered on demand. These tools process huge amounts of public data and (with your okay) mine your e-mail and calendar to provide spot-on recommendations with a minimum of hassle.
An iOS app launched in May by Kayak co-founder Paul English, Lola combines advanced processing ability with human judgment. Submit requests via a messaging tool; Lola applies the preferences in your profile (aisle or window, high-end hotels or affordable B&Bs), and a team of agents delivers a start-to-finish plan.
This year-old app (iOS and Android) also offers a hybrid of computer and human expertise—in this case, to help business travelers book flights, hotel rooms, transportation, and restaurants, as well as assist with changes and problems along the way. It costs $19 a month; a desktop tool is in beta.
The booking site’s “travel planning assistant” doesn’t require you to download an app or even visit the website. Hello Email and Hello Calendar glean info from your e-mail threads and calendar. It’s like looping in your travel-agent friend and letting him do all the unpleasant parts of planning, from flight comparisons to hotel searches.