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Slot machines get personal

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 7:09am
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

Processor advances for embedded systems help casinos win repeat visits

Playing a slot machine is more than just pulling the arm or pressing a button. Today’s slot machine manufacturers are incorporating more immersive, interactive features such as vivid, 4K displays with high-end graphics and animation, games based on tie-ins with popular entertainment brands from movies to game shows, plus “bonus” games where players get free spins or play a short game after first hitting a winning combination.

One of the simpler, less flashy systems within a slot machine that is also changing is the player tracking system. That’s where the player slides a player card into a reader, which exchanges time played for points redeemable for various perks at the casino property. Casino gamers often carry multiple player cards strung together on keyrings or even arranged around a chain and worn as a necklace.

Casinos are getting more aggressive in collecting player data, and the role of these cards is expanding beyond just doling out rewards points.

Player tracking helps the casino manage how much time and money is spent at the machine, and players still enjoy discounts on meals, shows, and hotel rooms. But in today’s fast-paced, connected world, casinos are increasingly providing more instant gratification to the player. If, for instance, a player has spent a specific amount of time or money at a given slot machine, that player may be rewarded with a free bonus game on the spot without having to wait until their next visit to redeem points.

Bonus games are playable on the main screen, or they can be a second game that does not require additional slot machine hardware. “The trend I’ve seen for some is they actually have a secondary bonus game linked into the player tracking,” says Craig Stapleton, product director of Advantech-Innocore. “It’s keeping track of your total activities in the casino, and then will provide a bonus based on ‘thanks for having dinner at our restaurant, and to say thank you, we’re giving you free spins.’”

A more immediate player tracking experience also means casinos can tailor the perks to individual tastes. “They’re making (player tracking) even more interactive. You will be able to get to the Internet through the player tracking in the future,” says AMD expert Kevin Tanguay, director of product marketing for gaming, AMD Embedded Solutions. Rewards can be customized with free spins at a favorite machine or comp points to the hotels. Still, the end game is to keep the player at their preferred machine. “It’s just making what they already implement today more intelligent,” Tanguay says.

“Be flexible”
There are really two ways to entice people to play a slot machine. The first is the main game. Slot machine manufacturers are constantly thinking of more exciting games, and they are making them visually more appealing with much brighter displays. The second part of the strategy is through player tracking. However, the player tracking system has historically been a simple player card reader. Little has changed over the years. Slot machines are built to a standard width and height so slot floor managers can easily lay out their casino floor. In this environment, little room exists for a display and heavy thermal constraints as the main game board increases in power consumption. The hardware remains relatively small and simple, and manufacturers worked to keep the costs low. Typically, there is an LCD screen, an embedded single board computer (SBC) and the card reader. On the game, the player tracking system is usually located just above the button deck and below the main screen. To fit within this confined space, the LCD is usually 6.2 inches and 640 x 240 in pixel resolution. Analog-resistant four-wire touchscreens with full graphic LCDs are becoming more common to provide the visual spectacle that manufacturers and players crave. As performance has increased in the same power and cost levels as previous generation processors, manufacturers are now considering ways to turn a simple tracking system into a real differentiator.

For the embedded board, COM Express, mini-ITX, or the smaller nano ITX 3½ inch form factors are most common. While the main game will require a high-performance processor, the embedded systems in player tracking rely on more modest processors that perform using from 4.5 W to 15 W and which can still accommodate the size-cost tradeoffs as player tracking gets more sophisticated. (Quad core configurations can use 25 W or higher). In the gaming world, there are many different machines each with its own little screen. “When going into a cabinet, you don’t have as much control as you like,” says Tanguay. “You have to be flexible to support display port, LVDS, DVI, or VGA.”

Advantech’s MIO 2270 Pico-ITX SBC, for instance, incorporates the AMD G Series SoC, which offers low power and low cost for small embedded systems, and is also powerful enough to drive graphics LCDs that play video animations with 30 fps audio visual video files such as advertisements using the “Jaguar” core. The SBC also offers flexibility through its integrated multiple I/O. Unless the embedded system uses a high-watt CPU, a separate fan along with its added expense is usually not required. SBC vendors can provide manufacturers the LCDs and cables for direct connection to the embedded boards for player tracking as well as off-the-shelf embedded OS images. Embedded Linux is a popular OS choice for player tracking developers, because they can forego purchasing an additional Windows license.

Making sure information is safe
With all the data being collected, player tracking needs to connect to a back-end server. The slot manager also needs to know how the machines are functioning and whether any of them have gone offline. This information is tied to the slot accounting system (SAS), which includes a wide range of player tracking support commands. (The Gaming Standards Association plans to roll out a new system called G2S to eventually replace SAS.) Some player tracking systems connect directly to the casino network, while others may connect to the machine’s main game slot machine interface board (SMIB), which transmits SAS data to the casino’s RS-485 or Ethernet network.

Player tracking systems are often a discrete module kept separate from the main system, so little if any security is needed on the board. But when connected to a SMIB (which interacts with the main game), or where an Ethernet or Internet connection are needed, that information can be hacked. Slot machine manufacturers have extensive expertise with security and require certifications. However, as networking and security issues become more complex to player tracking, processor vendors are adding security platforms to their products to prevent that information from falling into the wrong hands. “It makes the system much harder to attack,” says Tanguay.

Technology gets rolling
Gaming manufacturers and casinos are working to provide more immediate and interactive player tracking features. That means increased connectivity to the main gaming system to allow for free bonus games, and Internet connection. Technology is in place to enable future player tracking systems to perform services tailored to the player, such as making restaurant and show reservations. Today’s higher performance processors are approaching capabilities that can someday bring features that were once exclusive to science fiction to gaming, including facial recognition with the ability to measure the player’s engagement and excitement level. As casino game vendors leverage more of these capabilities, you can bet their slot machines will have even more pull with players. 

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