Masks, temperature checks, social distancing, hand-sanitizer stations and enhanced cleaning protocols are part of the Las Vegas casino experience now, but new technology is on the way to make gaming even safer in the pandemic age.
Las Vegas-based Scientific Games Corp. is working on a number of contactless solutions, including what it calls a Unified Wallet cashless gaming experience.
Unified Wallet lets players instantly access funds to play at gaming machines and tables through an app on their personal mobile device, says Matt Wilson, Scientific Games' executive vice president and gaming group chief executive.
"Instead of sitting down and inserting cash into a bill accepter, you're using a smartphone through Bluetooth technology to upload currency from your phone onto the slot machine itself so you're able circumvent touching cash," Wilson said. "And we know cash is a carrier of all sorts of nasty germs. It's a way for consumers to interact with a slot machine without ever having to put their hands on cash."
It's a pervasive technology that is only now gaining regulatory acceptance in gaming because of the pandemic, Wilson says. It is being tested in tribal casinos, he said, and a number of commercial casino operators are getting ready to deploy it.
"The gaming industry has discussed cashless payments for a while," said Howard Stutz, executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. "With the pandemic, it's become hyper-focused. A lot of stuff is moving from research and development to testing."
Both Wilson and Stutz emphasize that the virtual wallet is like a debit account, using currency that's been moved from a bank into a smartphone app to be used at the casino, and not a form of credit.
Scientific Games is also introducing an electronic gaming machine (EGM) scheduler to facilitate cleaning of machines on casino floors.
"When a player finishes a session on a slot machine, stands up and moves away, it sends an alert to the floor staff to tell sanitation crews that this EGM requires cleaning," Wilson said. "It will say on the screen itself that this game was sanitized at such and such a time so the consumer can walk up and see when was the last time this game was cleaned."
Wilson says the technology creates efficiencies for operators and confidence for consumers that surfaces have been cleaned recently.
"This could be with us for some period of time, so we have to have these solutions going forward," Wilson said.
Scientific Games has also come up with a dynamic distancing module that will help facilitate social distancing and will also work in coordination with its EGM cleaning software.
As Wilson describes it, the distancing module will detect when a gambler sits down at a particular machine and will then shut down the games on either side of player, ensuring that no one can play those games. Then, when the player has stopped using the machine, that machine will shut down and the two on either side of it will activate.
The dynamic distancing module will then alert staff that the machine that was just played is available to be cleaned, after which it will be reactivated.
Other innovations include ways in which players can reserve a favorite game or even an entry time if casinos begin to limit capacity.
Wilson is also excited about the ability to virtually replicate a gaming machine's buttons on a player's own phone, an advancement that he says is close to the finish line.
Stutz says recent improvements have made virtual dealers (who appear in video screens overseeing table games) more inviting. Virtual dealers were developed and classified as electronic games to use in states that were just beginning to legalize casino gaming but still not permitting live table games.
"What we're seeing now is the technology is getting better," Stutz said. "So, for lack of a better word, the dealer doesn't look so creepy. That was the thing about the video the dealers seemed a little creepy and scared some people off."
Virtual dealers may be become more prevalent in Nevada during the pandemic, Stutz said. "It's also seen as a less intimidating way to learn how to play table games because now you don't have a live dealer. You're not playing against other customers you're playing against the dealer."
Since frequently touched chips still present a cleaning challenge during the pandemic, virtual chips may be become more popular.
"I've seen this in Europe at table games, " Stutz said. "Instead of where your chips would be, there are iPad-type devices embedded. And that's where your chips are, and you basically use those as virtual chips." With cards being dealt face up, players don't have to touch cards or chips, he said.
Whether innovations necessitated by the pandemic become common going forward is an open question, but Stutz said cashless and digital payments will definitely remain.
And Wilson says Nevada can be expected to lead the way.
"Regulators here have identified that the casino economy is so critically important to the health of the Nevada economy in general, so they're always looking to be at the forefront of technologies how do we keep the industry relevant moving forward in a way that protects the player and the integrity of gaming." Wilson said. "We do see them as the gold standard. They're always pushing the boundaries in terms of what technology can mean to the casino industry."