consumer experience, mobile applications, social media, technologies

Smart Room shows cutting edge of Thistle Hotel

IMG_5145A technology-packed room recently opened at The Parc Hotel, Cardiff’s member of the Thistle chain. With strong interests in travel and tech, I was invited along to take a look.


“A grand Victorian building with a distinctive French-influenced façade, The Parc Hotel is a Cardiff landmark. Following a massive refurbishment, The Parc Hotel is universally recognised as one of the premier hotels in Cardiff City Centre.”

– Thistle.com

A few days later I was sprawled on a hotel bed examining the Smart TV remote control, barely containing my glee at all the shiny new tech, while my girlfriend wrestled with an equally shiny new Nespresso machine in the corner of the room.

The Smart Room is a modestly sized standard double room equipped with the following tech:

• Smart TV with access to social media, Netflix and Lovefilm.
• Nespresso Machine
• iPod Dock
• Bluetooth Speakers
• Free WiFi access

 

Coffee and TV

IMG_5134Glass suddenly juddered in the corner of the room as the coffee machine sputtered into life and Christina squeaked, leaping in shock. I feared the worst, but thankfully no smashing noise followed. “It’s fairly easy to use but instructions would’ve been useful and I’m not sure about that surface” she later commented, when calmed. We put it down to newness, as we did a couple of things, and by the time we left she wanted to steal it.

I was more concerned with the LG widescreen 3D television in front of me – worth between £2,000 – £2,500 and connected to all the web you want. A home-screen presents various options of apps, online features, games, film streaming, 3D content and also some television channels.

 

Internet Access

“If you were paying for the room it would be a £10 supplement to a ‘normal’ standard double room and when you think that access to WiFi is £10 for 24 hours it’s already paid for itself!”

A decent selling point well made by the Hotel Sales Manager. Indeed, an important thing for a ‘Smart Room’ is quick, unlimited internet access, especially if you’re there on business and in a hurry.

I was keen not to be instructed by the two members of staff who escorted us up to the room and gave a brief introduction. I wanted to assume things would be immediate, instant or intuitive. Frustratingly, they weren’t. On scanning across several devices, a number of potential WiFi networks appeared; none obviously the right one. A BT log-in page was presented in browsers, asking for a username and password.

So far, so not brilliantly intuitive. I called reception and a smiley receptionist happily brought an access scratch-card key. Why hadn’t I been given one on arrival, or why wasn’t one in the room already?

IMG_5150The online access given then only allowed two devices. Today if two people are sharing a smart room they’ll probably want to hook up more than two devices between them.

You can put these grumbles down to teething pains. We were only the second guests in the new room and once online, the connectivity was speedy enough.

Sounds good

Justifying a bullet-point in the above spec is an iPod speaker and radio. This Logic3 iPod dock, in 2013’s extensive range of iPod speaker docks, is fairly basic in appearance but makes a more than adequate sound. A minor, easily solvable issue is the lack of any pre-set radio stations. The crackle of radio fuzz introduces an antiquated sound to a room like this.

Also available for audiophiles is a pair of Microlab bluetooth speakers. We shamefully didn’t get around to checking these out, but it gives another way of remotely controlling tunes from the bed, or maybe bath.

LG Smart TV

The Smart Room’s unavoidable centrepiece is the big slab of glass and plastic fixed to the wall in front of the bed.

Despite the trove of media, settings, and the intuitive navigation, it can feel like the LG Smart TV operating system over-enthusiastically adopts what’s been successful on smartphone and tablet operating systems. There are standalone video and image files, paid-for games, as well as a music library. You can imagine the execs’ meeting: “Look. It’s a massive television, there’s loads of space, just make it do EVERYTHING!”

Clearly not everything here is intended for the traveller in a hotel room, but it’s also a stretch to imagine these would be used extensively in the home.

A small range of free downloadable 3D programmes includes a documentary “Dolphins and Wales”, offering a strong 21st Century extension on a fish bowl. Adjustable 3D settings of depth and viewpoint were new and ineffective to me but offer further interesting alternatives. At such short ranges, distance from the screen really impacts on the clarity of the 3D although the over-all effect is impressive. 3D channels were available from within the Smart TV and I expect options are available to download 3D films from Netflix or Lovefilm, if that’s your thing. Indeed, 4 pairs of 3D glasses are made available in the room in a fetching array of colours, if you should want to invite some friends.


Activating accounts

Through my existing Lovefilm account I managed to log-in and browse a good range of instantly available films. Despite the cost ambiguity here – it wasn’t clearly marked whether they were free, included in your existing package or you’d incur an additional fee – the user experience was smooth enough. We looked at Netflix, but neither of us had an account and setting one up seemed too much of a slow, multi-stage grind, so we stuck with Lovefilm.

Minor concerns about being unable to log out of the account and potentially leaving it accessible for the next visitors were allayed by an advanced settings page. This shows how to deactivate and disconnect the Smart TV device from your account.

A few account activations, including Facebook, appeared to involve retrieving a token from within an app, before having to head off to a browser page and entering the token code and a username and.. possibly losing the will to live. It feels like a number of processes are overly-fragmented and still finding their way.

You can set up some accounts through the Smart TV more easily than others, but it’s necessary to log-out and disconnect afterwards. With such ultra-connectivity in such a temporary place, there are a number of privacy and security dangers. It’s important to be aware of these, especially if you have children playing about.


Keyboard entry

Another imperfection of the technology is keyboard entry. Using the remote control to enter words by selecting individual keyboard letters from an on-screen keyboard is an exceptionally tedious exercise that seems to take forever. There is no auto-populate function so you dance back and forth across the screen finding an N then finding … Y… and if you’re entering an email address too.. Let’s just say the process is not a speedy one.

This is where advances in 3D gestural interfaces will help enormously, banishing or at least changing the form factor of remote controls for good. Smart TV controls which intelligently detect hand movements or taps of a virtual keyboard should improve matters.

The new “Leap Motion” sensor is said to be 100 times more accurate than Microsoft’s Kinect and less than half the price. It launches commercially in May.

Or it might be that an incredible new security technology eventually comes along to ease our primitive dependency on email accounts, usernames and passwords. (I can’t adequately describe my frustration with this dependency – especially when it comes to finance, banking, tax, pensions; details you need only annually and can never retrieve without significant effort, unless you’re much better organised than me).

For only an extra ten pounds, The Parc Hotel’s Smart Room is certainly good value and there’s heaps to keep you entertained in the Smart TV, as well as audio options through the iPod and Bluetooth speakers. It’s also fair to say that there are just a few wrinkles which could be ironed out easily enough, but that’s to be expected in a room so new and so smart.

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