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GAMING Casinos looking to get wired



Published: Sat, January 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Future casinos will know your favorite game, meal, your car, your needs.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

The slot machine long ago shed its one-armed-bandit image. Soon, your thumbprint will be the only thing the device needs to tap all sorts of information about you.

The casino of the future will know your favorite games and when you are most likely to play them. It will recall your favorite meals and what designer labels you prefer in casino clothing shops. And it will track the car you arrived in and whether you are staying overnight.

Such technology isn't too far away. A completely wired casino, where various computers talk to one another to monitor a customer's every move, represents the next wave in the high-tech world of casino gambling.

"Through interlinking of technology, casino managers are going to have a 'God's-eye view' of their casino floor," said Alan I. Kalb, a patent attorney at Atlantic City, N.J.-based Cooper Levenson, which specializes in helping gaming regulators, manufacturers and casino owners work in sync.

But some think casinos may be privy to too much information.

"The public authorities that regulate casinos should scrutinize the content, and the actual data, that is being collected on players," said William Thompson, who teaches courses on gambling at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He testified in Harrisburg last year on the economic impact of having slot machines in Pennsylvania. "There is an invasion of privacy, even if the information is given voluntarily."

Brave new world

At the forefront of this brave new world is the bank of slot machines that makes up the majority of revenue -- 73 percent of last year's $4.5 billion gaming industry in Atlantic City.

There will soon come a day where player tracking cards -- introduced more than 20 years ago to record every customer's gaming habits and preferences -- will become obsolete.

The machine will recognize you by your thumbprint. Industry experts say the technology is available in other industries now and has the potential to be applied to the gaming industry within five years.

"Certainly, the industry is exploring that kind of technology for game play and security application," said Ed Rogich, vice president of sales marketing for International Game Technology, one of the world's leading manufacturers of gaming devices and software systems, with 70 percent of the U.S. market. "Computer technology, wherever it's being applied, can eventually be used in gaming."

Pennsylvania approval

Last summer, the Pennsylvania General Assembly approved gambling legislation to allow for 61,000 slot machines in 14 venues throughout the state.

Pennsylvania is in position to get the latest and greatest in slot technology.

Operators of Pennsylvania slot parlors may have a competitive advantage because they do not have to retrofit an older casino, Kalb said. "They can start right from day one and build a custom casino incorporating all of the techno-goodies that would make any slot manager blush," he said.

Rogich said the impact of computer technology on slot machines could be seen in the use of more vibrant colors, better animation, streaming video and 3-D imagery. He said that, within three years, operators would have the ability to download games to their floor from a central computer.

"The technology has just really followed the computer industry, following the demand for capacity, memory and connectivity," he said.

The $1.1 billion Borgata Hotel Casino & amp; Spa is at the forefront of this new frontier, as Atlantic City's most technologically advanced casino. Its $50 million technology infrastructure has forced the other gambling houses in town to play catch-up.

The casino is completely wired, integrating more than 120 software programs from more than 60 vendors to track everything from hotel occupancy to wardrobe inventory, using chips sewn into dealers' uniforms.

"When a customer walks into the Borgata, it feels like one large experience," said Dave Farlin, vice president of information technology at the hotel casino.

Ticketing technology

The casino won the Larry Cole award in November at the Gaming & amp; Technology conference in Atlantic City, named for one of the founders of coinless ticketing. The Borgata opened July 2, 2003, with all 3,600 slot machines on its gaming floor using ticketing technology -- a precedent for this seaside gambling resort.

With a coinless machine, a bar-coded ticket with credits prints out. The ticket can be used on a different machine, cashed out at a cashier's cage or used on another visit.

For Sherry Photis, 55, of Marlboro, N.J., the coinless slot machine is "instant gratification."

"It's cleaner and quite a time-saver," said the retired elementary-school teacher, and a regular at the Borgata. "Out comes that ticket, and I pop it into the next machine."

For casino operators, the coinless technology means less downtime on the machines, resulting in more revenue. It also means lower labor costs by eliminating the need for someone to fill coin hoppers.

"It's not only saving money, it's more about how we analyze ourselves and how we can take advantage of trends," said Larry Mullin, the Borgata's chief operating officer.

Stand-alone slots OK

Under the state gambling law, Pennsylvania can implement stand-alone slot machines, like those used in Atlantic City. Each machine is equipped with a microprocessor to determine the game's outcome.

Through the use of a player card -- a magnetic-striped card that looks exactly like a credit card or ATM bank card -- the Borgata records all the customers' "play," or activity at a slot machine, which gives management a tremendous amount of information about their preferences and patterns.

"I like the lights and sounds of the game," said Jack Mato, 59, of Ridley Park, Pa., who comes every other weekend. On a recent Sunday, he played his favorite, "Winning for Dummies," a 50-cent slot game. "It's exciting."

The Borgata's integrated systems provide managers real-time data every two hours on customer volume. They also get an accounting of every dollar that goes into the slot machines.

"We don't wait until the end of the month to see how we did," Farlin said. "We get a very accurate snapshot on a daily basis of all of our revenue and expenses."

The casino has 142 programmable plasma screens across the gaming floor, in elevators and inside its bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that change video images instantly, and have replaced posters to market entertainment attractions and slot winners.

The increase in the availability of data, via the player cards, has enabled managers to be more innovative in luring and retaining customers.

For instance, the Borgata offers promotional slot dollars for coming on certain days, or times of the day, and a player who inserts his card into a machine can easily download the complimentary slot dollars.

"This gives us the ability to incentivize customers to come during the hours that we want them to come, and when they're most likely to come," Farlin said. "From the customers' standpoint, it frees them up from having to carry coupons or clippings."

Automated valet parking

The Borgata is the first casino in Atlantic City to highly automate valet parking. A computerized system takes down a customer's name and license-plate number, snaps pictures of the vehicle and assigns a space closest to the next car to be picked up. It re-enters the information automatically, using license-plate recognition, whenever the customer returns.

All the new technology is intended to enhance customer experience, said Thomas Platt, director of William Ryan Group Inc., a developer of gaming software. The firm provides software to 13 gambling resorts, including Atlantic City.

Platt said casinos of the future would use more full-color and touch screens to replace manual dials. He anticipates that even table games will offer a "fully integrated table environment," with automatic card shufflers, and wagers occurring in real time.

"The customer is the focus of all of this interaction," Platt said. "The casino is going to be able to anticipate and fulfill your desires before you even think of them."




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