How the Coronavirus Pandemic Sped up Innovation at Casinos

Before stepping foot in a casino in 2021, there are cameras ready to take temperatures and, in some cases, identify guests. It’s the kind of technology that even in 2019 would have seemed foreign to casino visitors but has now become the new normal because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Tech companies and experts alike say the pandemic helped make some already-in-the-works technology that much more important to bring to market in addition to fostering innovation. And when the pandemic finally draws to a close, some of those technologies will be around for the long haul.

“I think technologies stick around because consumers demand them; we have seen radical changes to consumer behavior,” said Robert Rippee, executive director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Black Fire Innovation.

Black Fire works with students and entrepreneurs on new technologies and creating licensing opportunities for the intellectual property, entertainment, hospitality and food and beverage industries. Rippee has been following places such as casinos closely as they have embraced new technologies in response to the pandemic.

He said that when casinos reopened during the initial phases of the pandemic, their reaction to it was somewhat low-tech. There was an emphasis on barriers, social distancing and the use of chemicals for cleaning as those were things that were simple and could be implemented quickly.

“Now we’re beginning to see an emergence of quite a number of higher end technology-related innovations that are entering the space,” he said.

Among the products that companies have been rolling out are touchless games, thermal cameras and cashless gaming options.

Touchless technologies are one of several different things that touchscreen and display company TES America is working on to make places such as casinos safer, said Gene Halsey, general manager of the company’s Holland, Michigan, operations.

Other products that his company offers include an antiviral coating that works to break down coronaviruses on surfaces within minutes when it’s exposed to overhead fluorescent lighting and a program that would allow people to effectively play a slot machine using their phone screen by scanning a QR code.

But Halsey says that the company’s Airtouch technology is at the center of the company’s efforts and he anticipates that it will probably be one of the easier products to implement in places such as casinos. The technology creates a sort of invisible screen that sits above the actual screen’s glass surface where germs and viruses may be located.

“Instead of you having to physically touch the screen, it moves that interaction two to three centimeters off the screen,” he said.

How soon these technologies actually make it into casinos, however, remains to be seen. Halsey said he’s seen some interest from the manufacturers of the machines themselves but not as much from casinos. He says the casinos have been in entrenched in cost-saving measures and their interest has remained tepid. He anticipates it may be around six months from now before these kinds of devices start arriving on gaming floors in some capacity.

Rippee said that touchless innovations and cleaning products are the kinds of things that will have staying power because consumers will want them.

He said consumers, particularly older generations who have hunkered down at home because they were at greater risk due to the virus, may have undergone a behavioral change in that that they’ve become accustomed to going out less often.

“So I think that as a result, they are going to say, ‘If you want me to participate in your business, you have to fulfill my needs,’” Rippee said, adding that those consumers might be more concerned with cleanliness and sanitation and may very well want more touchless interactions.

Keeping those temperatures checked 

One thing that’s become standard across the tribally-owned casinos in Southern California is non-invasive temperature checking, with customers passing through some sort of scan at a casino’s entrance to check for a fever.

One of the companies selling such devices is eConnect Global, which specializes in analytics and facial recognition software. The company’s eClear non-contact infrared thermometer has made its way into hundreds of casinos and the lightweight, personal tablet-shaped thermal camera not only checks temperatures, but also has facial recognition that can help the casino to identify people entering the property, including employees, high rollers, and people who perhaps aren’t allowed to be on site.

Henry Valentino, president and chief executive officer of eConnect, said the facial recognition element of the product was already in the works, but the ability to check temperatures was something that was added because of the pandemic.

Valentino said he doesn’t know how long the temperature checking element of the eConnect software might remain relevant, but he believes the facial recognition will still be extremely useful for casinos to keep tabs on who’s coming in and when.

“Your face is like a digital key — it’s unique to you,” Valentino said. “It will be with you your whole life and it’s how we recognize people.”

Going cashless 

Cashless technologies are already appearing in Southern California casinos. Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa will roll out a cashless wagering system this quarter and casinos across the country are also embracing different cashless products.

Gaming company Aristocrat has launched a new digital wallet feature that allows players to place cash on account at the cashier cage and then use their player loyalty card on the casino floor instead of having to handle cash as they travel between various slot machines.

The company had long been working on cashless technology in an effort to mirror trends that they were seeing in the retail sector, but the pandemic really motivated them to accelerate the timeline, according to Cath Burns, executive vice president of customer experience for Aristocrat.

“COVID made us alert to the fact that not only was it a paradigm in retail already but now everyone was sitting at home and online transacting and it really prompted the way forward,” Burns said.

Aristocrat teamed with Boyd Gaming Corporation, which owns casino properties in various parts of the country, to roll out the digital wallet feature.

So far, the digital wallet is available just for slot machines at Boyd’s Blue Chip Casino Hotel Spa in Michigan City, Indiana, but it will soon roll out at Boyd’s Nevada properties and then elsewhere in the country. In the future, the tech will be expanded so that it can be used at table games, retail and restaurants.

Aristocrat and Boyd also want to integrate the digital wallet into Boyd Gaming’s B Connected Mobile app to create a true touchless, digital experience for customers.

Blake Rampmaier, senior vice president and chief information officer for Boyd, said having cashless technologies such as digital wallet has long been part of a larger road map for Boyd and that one goal will be to use the technology both for its brick and mortar business as well as its online business such as online slot play or sports betting.

That integration of real world and online experiences is going to become increasingly important, according to Rippee. He said we’ve “learned to consume online entertainment like we never have before” from Twitch to Netflix and that raises an important question for casino operators.

“How do you integrate a phenomenon toward online with a physical experience of going there?,” he said. “And that’s a big question and that’s what in five years they have to answer.”