Apple ‘Hotel Key’ Demo | How Apple’s New Room Key Feature Works in iOS 15

Hyatt Hotels Digital Room Key on iPhone Credit: Hyatt Hotels
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One of the cooler new features that came along in iOS 15 is something that most of us haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet, since it requires compatible third-party hardware on the other end.

We’re talking about Apple’s new Digital Keys which opens up the NFC capabilities of the iPhone to let you store the keys for your home, office, dorm, or even your hotel room.

The feature is actually an expansion of Car Key, which came out in iOS 13.6 a couple of years back. Even that, however, hasn’t been widely rolled out.

The first generation of Car Key is only available on select BMW vehicles, and more significantly it’s still pretty limited in its usefulness; it requires you to physically place your iPhone or Apple Watch in close proximity to your car door, and then also set it down in a designated spot on your console to start the engine.

For most folks, it’s far easier just to use the key fob that came with your vehicle.

That’s set to change, of course, with a new Ultra Wideband version of Car Key available in iOS 15, which should be coming later this year to BMW and other automakers such as Hyundai’s Genesis.

So, it’s clear that iOS 15 is poised to bring digital keys into the mainstream, but now that Apple has built the technology, it’s up to others to come to the table and support it.

Unlike many other tech companies, however, Apple doesn’t normally introduce a new feature unless it has at least a couple of launch partners available. For Car Key, that was BMW, and now for Hotel Key, it’s Hyatt Hotels.

On the very first day it unveiled the digital keys feature at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple announced that Hyatt Hotels had agreed to bring the technology to over 1,000 of its properties worldwide. Sadly, it doesn’t look like that’s happening all at once, however; as of last month, Hyatt is only piloting Hotel Key at six locations.

Apple Hotel Room Key Demo

It’s fair to say that most folks aren’t in a position to try out the new Hotel Key feature just for fun, but fortunately, one intrepid reporter decided to see how it works for himself.

Rich DeMuro or KTLA set out on a visit to the Hyatt Regency Long Beach, one of the six hotels where the new technology is available, just to check it out and share the experience with his viewers.

DeMuro shared a short video of the overall user experience from his iPhone, using Express Mode to demonstrate how seamlessly it works; just hold the iPhone near the lock to your hotel room, and you’re in.

Although many hotels have offered apps with digital room keys before, as DeMuro explains, these technologies have been cumbersome at best, as you couldn’t call them up without unlocking your iPhone and opening an app.

If you’ve ever tried to use your smartphone as a hotel room key, it hasn’t been the best experience. First, you need to unlock your phone, open an app, then activate the room key to use it.

Rich DeMuro, KTLA

Starwood Hotels probably came the closest to a seamless experience with its Apple Watch app years ago, but that was still limited to use with the wearable, and you still had to open the app before you could actually use it to unlock your door.

By comparison, Apple’s new Digital Keys just work, especially if you keep Express Mode enabled. Building on the technology in the Express Transit feature that Apple introduced in iOS 12.3, Express Mode lets you use your digital keys from your iPhone or Apple Watch without unlocking it. It also ensures that your key remains accessible even if your device is powered off due to a dead battery.

Apple Hotel Room Key Process | From Checking In to Settling In

DeMuro doesn’t just demonstrate using a digital key — he also describes the entire process, from the point of linking up with the Hyatt app to checking in and heading into your room. According to DeMuro:

  1. The first step is to authorize your iPhone to use the new feature via the Hyatt app. This allows it to store the Hotel Key in your Apple Wallet.
  2. Assuming you’ve already made a reservation, when you arrive at the hotel you can check into your room right from the app — no need to visit the front desk.
  3. You’ll get a notification on your iPhone when your room is ready, with the option to add your room key to Apple Wallet.
  4. Once you’ve added your room key to the Wallet app, you’ll see your room number listed on the key, and you can proceed to just tap it on any of the card readers in the hotel, whether that’s at the door to your room, the elevator to get to your floor, or other amenities such as the fitness centre of business centre.

For instance, DeMuro explains that the first point at which he needed to use his Apple Hotel Key was in the elevator, which was faster and easier than anything he’d experienced before, since he didn’t have to worry about finding the app and opening it up within a limited time window.

My first test of the new system came in the elevator, where I had to tap my room key to access my floor. Historically, with an app, this process has been tricky. You need to have the app opened, and the card activated just in time before the doors close or the elevator starts moving. With my room key in Apple Wallet, I didn’t even have to unlock my phone. I just held it near the reader, and it instantly recognized my key.

Rich DeMuro, KTLA

He repeated the process when he reached his room, describing it as taking “just a fraction of a second,” and being “much easier than fumbling with a plastic room key.”

While DeMuro only tested this with an iPhone, he added that it should work the same way if you’re using an Apple Watch. It’s fair to say in this case the whole experience should be even more magical, as you don’t even need to fumble with your iPhone; your watch is ready to go even if your arms are laden down with travel bags.

In fact, DeMuro was so impressed that he said it’s hard to imagine ever using a plastic key card again. Not only is there less risk of losing the plastic key card, but there’s almost no risk of getting locked out because you forgot your key in your room. Most folks aren’t likely to leave their hotel room without their iPhone in hand, and even less likely to leave their Apple Watch behind.

Overall, it’s going to be tough to ever use a plastic key again after trying out this new method using the iPhone. There’s no plastic key to lose, and there’s no worry that your key will be demagnetized and stop working.

Rich DeMuro, KTLA

DeMuro also points out the other benefit of Express Mode, which is that your iPhone and Apple Watch will still let you use your hotel keys for around five hours after the battery on your iPhone dies.

Add it all up and it’s clear, the days are numbered for plastic room keys.

Rich DeMuro, KTLA

Express Mode can also be disabled if you’re concerned about security, but DeMuro makes a good point that even though this mode allows somebody else to unlock your hotel room door while your iPhone is locked, they won’t be able to actually see your room number while your iPhone is locked. We suspect this might be dependent on the Lock Screen security settings on your iPhone, but we haven’t had an opportunity to test this for ourselves. At most, users may simply need to make sure that access to Apple Wallet is disabled while the iPhone is locked — a setting that we think most users should change anyway.

Beyond hotel keys, Apple’s new Digital Key feature will also bring the same capabilities to your front door, with the first compatible locks arriving this spring. The technology is also ready to be rolled out in offices and on school campuses, where it can directly replace the key cards that are traditionally used to access secure facilities.

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