'Jury out' on hi-tech casinos

May 27, 2008 7:05 PM

By David Stratton | Even though high technology has revolutionized casino operations, the "jury is still out" on the casino of the future with its wireless games, server-based slots and retinal scanning security systems.

That’s the message from Saverio Scheri, managing director of WhiteSand Consulting, and speaker at last week’s Gaming Technology Summit held in Las Vegas.

Scheri said the "build it and they will come" approach to casinos of the past is uncharted territory for the ever-evolving casino floor of the future.

"Customers are pretty sophisticated today," Scheri said. "When they learn that the operator can change, not just the content of a machine but the hold percentage of that machine with as little notice as 24 hours, it will be interesting to see how they react.

"They may change their perception of the slot machine."

Scheri was referring to network-based slot floors or server-based gaming. The technology is currently being tested on a small scale at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, but has already been approved outside of Nevada in casinos such as Barona in California.

The largest rollout of a network-based slot floor is expected to be at MGM Mirage’s massive CityCenter project, currently under construction on the Las Vegas Strip, which will open next year.

A network-based slot floor would allow the casino operator to control nearly every aspect of the game – cost, payout, even the images that line up on the payline. Programmers would be able to make changes in real time through back-end servers that talk to computer chips inside the slot machines.

In addition to changing games and altering the machine’s payback percentage, the network would open an expanded communications portal to the slot-playing customer.

The portal would allow the casino to cross-promote everything from gaming promotions to dining outlets and entertainment venues. The system could also serve as a personalized slot club, in which a player could convert player points to cash, credits or comps.

While new developments such as network-based slots are often met with pomp and pageantry, Scheri suggested a network could be vulnerable to the same bugs and malfunctions that plague personal computers.

"The technology often sounds like a neat thing, but what happens when it doesn’t work?" Scheri said.

Regulators add the technology could also be seductive targets for hackers, who have been trying to rig or beat games since the inception of games.

Another budding development in the Brave New World of casinos is wireless or mobile gaming, which just began a three-month field trial at The Venetian in Las Vegas.

The mobile gaming devices allow casino customers to gamble on computerized versions of games such as blackjack, roulette, baccarat and video poker via a hand-held PDA.

But casino customers in Las Vegas, where the average age is in the high 40’s, may be reluctant to play on a tiny Gameboy-sized device that requires a pencil-like stylus to operate.

"The mobile platform may be successful, depending on how it’s presented to the player, but maybe not with the hard-core casino games," Scheri said. "It might have legs on the sports and race betting side, though."

Scheri explained that a casino player – whether sitting at a blackjack table or slot machine – may find a mobile device useful for placing sports bets, which are legal only in Nevada, without leaving his game.

As far as other cutting-edge technologies, such as biometrics, Scheri said slot players would probably be reluctant to undergo a retinal scan in order to log onto a slot machine.

Nor would they relish offering a fingerprint scan in order to access their hotel room.

While the acceptance by players of new gaming technologies is still a question mark, new developments that facilitate casino operations are becoming commonplace.

For instance, optical card scanners are currently being used by casinos to track playing cards, ensuring pit bosses that players aren’t cheating and dealers aren’t making (too many) mistakes.

The use of RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – in casino chips is spreading, allowing the casino to track chips and make rapid table counts.

Overall, there are advantages and disadvantages to most new developments, Scheri said.

"The bottom line for the casino is – how much is it going to cost and how much will I make," he said.

For the casino player, however, one thing is unlikely to change in the casino of the future: the slim odds of winning big will probably stay the same.