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Hotels embrace high-tech features for tomorrow's guestrooms

Your smartphone already acts as a boarding pass, a flight tracker and a travel guide, now get ready for it to transform into a hotel room key – no pesky key cards required.

Hoteliers are getting a sneak peak at the concept at the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference (HITEC), which began Monday in Baltimore.

One of the main attractions: “Guestroom 20X,” an exhibit packed with high-tech creature comforts that organizers bill as “The Hotel Guestroom of the Future.”

You’ll find everything from a gravity massage chair to wireless light bulb speakers, but perhaps the most intriguing feature is the mobile key.

Here is how it works:

The lock uses a wireless technology called Near Field Communication (NFC), which allows two devices to interact with each other over a short distance – just a few inches or so. Once you check into the hotel online, a room assignment and a unique code would be sent securely to your smartphone. Hold the phone up to a special access reader on the door and voila, you’re in.

Only a handful of smartphones now come with the NFC chip installed, but that will change soon, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group.

“I think that within the next two years, you will have a critical mass of travelers carrying smartphones or tablets that are equipped with the Near Field Communication chips needed to use this,” Harteveldt said.

“What travelers are saying is, I want to be able to use my smartphone or my tablet for a lot of the tasks that are part of my travel experience,” he said.

Indeed, mobile is big and only getting bigger on the road.

The number of U.S. travelers with at least one smartphone is expected to jump from the current 54 percent to 90 percent by 2015, according to the Atmosphere Research Group. In a recent survey, 41 percent of hotel guests with smartphones told the company they’d be interested in using their devices to check into a hotel.

Leisure travelers will consider the ability to use their phone as a key more of a novelty, but business travelers will embrace it quickly, predicted Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR Global, which tracks data for the hotel industry.

One of the biggest perks? Bypassing the check-in process at the front desk.

“I think the road warrior absolutely would go for that because they have one thing on their mind, which is: the flight was delayed, the rental car was dirty, I want to get my room. I don’t want to talk to anybody,” Freitag said. “[Travelers] want, while they’re driving to the hotel, to get a text, get the key, have the room assigned and move on.”

As with all new technologies, some people will worry about security, but both Harteveldt and Freitag noted that the unique code sent to your phone will work only for a specific room and only for the time that you’re registered at the hotel – just like the code programmed into a key card.

What else might you expect inside the hotel room of the future?

“Moving Murals” — constantly changing displays — promise to put an end to bland hotel art.

And many more ways to charge all of your gadgets. The “Guestroom 20X” exhibit features lamps that come with built-in USB ports, as well a “power grommet” that allows wireless charging.

“That’s really important because I have a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone, a Blackberry, and whatever else I carry ... and all that needs to be charged," Freitag said. "I think the hotel industry understands that."

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