Chip Off the New Block

What is the future for RFID technology in the casino business?

Few items startle, exhilarate, stun, or command the attention of business like RFID.

Radio frequency identification has become more than a generic term for technologies using radio waves to identify people or objects. It implies unlimited technological precision, enhancing several industries by tracking vehicles, airline passengers, Alzheimer’s patients, even pets.

The technology protects expensive items like Fender guitars with embedded microchips to indentify the owner. RFID tags are even part of a Utopian grocery-store scenario in which customers select products, avoid lines, walk out of stores and have the banks deduct the purchase from their accounts. The RFID tags will have communicated with an electronic reader that detects and rings up each item in the cart.

Gaming does not share that euphoria. Its journey through this projected paradise has become a mixed bag of sizzle and fizzle, lurching and stopping over the past seven years. A sobering discovery has emerged: RFID underwhelmed.

The technology sure seemed ahead of its time in 2005 when Wynn Las Vegas launched RFID-enabled high-roller chips to detect counterfeit activity, track betting habits, speed chip tallies and monitor dealer error. The industry hailed this cutting-edge blend of surveillance, marketing, accounting and comping capabilities.

And that became the problem. RFID could not perform its be-all-to-end-all function. Its antennas did not blend easily with table games. It was cumbersome.

In the player-tracking world, RFID may have outlived its usefulness. Several previous proponents have placed this technology in their rear-view mirrors and even Wynn Las Vegas, RFID’s unofficial pioneer, declined comment for this story.

Rebirth In New Form

But RFID is not dead. It has a powerful group of partners. Namely, Gaming Partners International.

The Las Vegas company has put its money where its vision is. GPI offers a product line that shifts emphasis toward chip inventory, helping operators monitor their business. This has been especially useful in Asian markets, where a property may have hundreds of gaming tables.

Gaming Partners International is one of the industry’s largest RFID proponents. The company is a leading worldwide provider of casino currency and equipment with offices and manufacturing facilities in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Its lineup includes casino currency (chips, plaques and jetons), RFID products and technology, layouts, dice, cards, gaming furniture and accessories. It also has table game products including European and American roulette wheels.

GPI packs a slew of RFID-enabled solutions and made a major presentation for its Total Money Management program at the 2012 G2E Asia. From an optimism viewpoint, this company looks to have sprinted away from the industry pack. Call it simplify, then multiply. GPI has performed a nifty two-step: widening its product line while narrowing its focus.

This company sees a revitalized RFID in part because it understands the past.

“I think that for the most part, RFID got pushed to the side because the technology’s first-phase implementation didn’t live up to the hype that was originally talked about,” says Kirsten Clark, GPI’s vice president of global marketing and product management. “The hype did not, in my opinion, take into consideration the limitations of the technology with respect to the antennas and their readability range.

“Instead of rolling out the technology in a much more conservative way, companies went right to the desired best-case scenario in search of the ‘holy grail’ of tracking customers.”

The industry embraced the promise of RFID. Technology would streamline operations and enhance profit. Or would it?

“When RFID first became the buzz in the mid 2000s, the companies that invested in RFID, like Bally and IGT and Shuffle Master, along with industry suppliers, said, ‘Wow, if we can get betting information, think what we can do,’” Clark says. “‘We can get perfect player ratings. We would be able to evaluate the ongoing data, as far as what was going on at the data table.’ It seemed endless.

“One of the ways it would be great was to accurately evaluate the player’s value to the casino. When it comes time to comp, for instance, some players will change their bets if a pit boss comes along, and it looks like they are betting more. RFID seemed like the perfect system.”

It didn’t seem too difficult for the technologically savvy. Put a microchip inside the casino chip. Install RFID antennaes under the table surface. The bets and patterns would be picked up by a transceiver under the table, which records information on a dealer’s screen in real time. The system could deliver data on a player’s habits and chip movements, on a floor’s hot and quiet games, and deliver data to help rate someone’s play.

RFID had two methods to fit the gaming agenda. Low-frequency (125 KHz) RFID chips are ideal for counting, tracking, authentication, inventory and security purposes. High-frequency chips (13.56 MHz) combine all the features of low-frequency chips with sophisticated player tracking capabilities, and can interface with the casino management system. 

A Rocky Marriage

Small problems arose quickly, with some players complaining about “Big Brother” monitoring their game strategy.

Larger ones followed. RFID could not accommodate specialized play. In blackjack, for instance, complications occurred once players doubled down. More betting sensors would be needed to accumulate the information. There wouldn’t be enough space to accommodate all the antennas without them causing interference with each other. A similar scenario affects roulette. How does one track all the components of a game in which a player bets the corner, or a street? Multiple bets can cause interference because the chips are not neatly stacked in designated areas. With infinite space, all situations could be handled. But space is not infinite, and interference thus inevitable.

“What can happen is that the antennas that are reading the tags in each RFID chip could pick up chips that weren’t being bet,” Clark explains. “If an antenna isn’t shielded correctly, it could pick up chips held in a player’s hand directly under the bet spot underneath the table, which would give you a false bet reading. Or, they could pick up chips in a stack adjacent to them, etc.

“With respect to doubling down, roulette corners and so forth, this type of bet capturing is possible, but you’d need a much larger table game surface that could accommodate all of these distinct bets. Or, your players would have to bet so carefully and precisely within small areas to get accurate data, that it could slow the game down.”

Another Continent, Another View

Clark says the RFID suffers from its perceived inability to deliver what was promised, especially in the United States.

Asia, however, takes a different view. It uses RFID for inventory purposes. This may explain GPI jumping ahead of the industry curve by serving the casino operation itself rather than monitoring players. GPI purchased the Chip Inventory System (CIS) from IGT in 2010 and lured Clark, formerly of Shuffle Master, into its operations last year. RFID is a significant area of her responsibility, and demonstrates the company’s commitment to this technology.

“We were passive participants in the mid-2000s rollout of RFID,” Clark says. “We provided the technology in our chips and supporting readers, but we weren’t actively trying to extend the use of the technology to multiple areas of the casino. Now, and especially since we purchased CIS from IGT, we’re actually focusing on multiple ways to use RFID chip inventory data to enhance casino operations from a variety of operational perspectives.

“Many of these can positively impact the player experience, especially by automating manual processes at the table that stop game play.”

The CIS Pitch Line

Using RFID technology to track the location and status of all enabled chips throughout the casino, the Chip Inventory System helps operators increase inventory movement efficiency and security and gain valuable insight into operations.

By tracking the currency from the cage or vault to its authorized location on the gaming floor, it allows real-time monitoring and authentication of inventory and provides instant validation of chip amounts and serial numbers. This enables operators to know what is going on with their chips.

The company touts several benefits. The automated chip management eliminates manual processes, minimizes human errors and improves overall efficiency. Software provides access to an accurate database of all valid chips. The system verifies manual counts, provides a secure inventory of chips, monitors the chip tray’s activity and integrates with the latest technology for antennas and readers.

At G2E Asia last May, GPI unveiled a unique use of its total management system, which utilizes CIS.

RFID Total Money Management offers an innovative way to track chips and cash from the table to back-of-house while providing real-time data about the money in action on the floor. Combining RFID with JCM’s iV8 high-speed bill validator, this integrated money management solution streamlines table game cash and chip transactions.

The process involves a player presenting his cash buy-in to the dealer, who places notes into the bill validator, which quickly authenticates and counts the notes. It also rejects invalid items. The player confirms the buy-in. The bills are automatically dropped into the stacker and the bill validator reports the total amount to the Chip Inventory System. The dealer places the correct amount of chips on the table validation antenna. When the amounts balance in CIS, the buy-in transaction is validated, recorded in the database, and the chips are given to the player.

Its value to the back of the house lies in eliminating manual counting errors, automating fill and credit manual accounting procedures, and enabling real-time monitoring of table cash and chip balances.

At the table, it increases the rounds per hour by reducing manual counting, automating the table. It provides instant float and drop-box balances and shares this information with the casino management system, when connected.

The combination of CIS and the Total Money Management is GPI’s latest foray into the casino inventory niche. Several other RFID products are already in place.

RFID: It Starts With The Chip

When RFID microchips are installed in a gaming chip, plaque or jeton, they provide a reliable way to verify the chip’s authenticity and to track and record its movement throughout a casino, GPI sales information says.

Because each RFID-enabled casino chip, plaque or jeton has a unique tag that is encoded with its monetary value, it can be instantly identified and validated when it comes in contact with an RFID reader. This enables RFID currency to improve the accuracy of chip counting and cage inventory procedures while providing a high level of security.

What about RFID on the floor? Its products include chip trays to automate chip-counting procedures, along with a Table Top Authenticator. The authenticator provides dealers and pit personnel with an easy way to determine currency at the table. Using a concealed reader installed underneath the layout, the device accurately reads anywhere from a single chip to three stacks of 20 in seconds and relays this information to the dealer and pit boss.

Poker is included. The table stakes poker RFID solution combines an RFID chip tray, a reader and a display to automate chip counting, pot calculation and currency authentication procedures. Available in both low and high frequency, the poker solution enables greater game speed while eliminating rake, round-up and other calculation mistakes. It is also available with an optional progressive jackpot module that can increase the appeal of poker tables.

RFID In the Cage

When RFID currency is combined with a suite of cage and bank readers and antennas, the possibility of human error is eliminated, GPI maintains. The result is access to an unparalleled accounting chip inventories and transactions.

Cage readers automate manual count and verification procedures by accurately reading chips, plaques and jetons individually, in stacks or in trays. By embedding the cage antenna into the cash desk counter, one has error-free chip and cash flow control combined with counterfeit detection.

Chip Bank Readers, as the name suggests, quickly and accurately read large quantities of chips and jetons. GPI’s chip bank readers automate manual count and verification procedures by providing a record and verification of all fills and credits.

Iverson Sees Another Use

Those who think outside the box will still profit from RFID. Millard Reeves, vice president of new product development at Iverson Gaming in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, says the original RFID implementation faced formidable hurdles.

He cites the need for electricity and outlets under the table as costly to the casinos and the presence of antennas a trust-buster for players.

“The feeling that emerged was that players in the United States did not want you touching that table,” he says. “They can be leery of technology. What is it doing, what is it tracking, how is this changing the game for me? We are finding now that players are much more trusting of technology on the gaming floor, and this is a good time to roll out a new product.”

Reeves believes RFID can be utilized in a different manner. His company wants to roll out the technology as part of a slot reader on European ships owned by Carnival Cruise Lines. Iverson Gaming intends to debut the product next spring.

Reeves also supports the next generation of RFID in smaller form. Casinos can hand out an iPad with an active RFID tag to track where the guest goes, how much is wagered and, presumably, whether or not to rate him.

Future of RFID

While the industry wants to believe in RFID, its major accomplishments remain hard to quantify. RFID-enabled chips were initially credited with thwarting a $1.5 million robbery in 2011 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The device itself was hailed as the reason stolen chips could not be resold.

It later surfaced, however, that an astute employee overheard the thief trying to resell the chips upon re-entering the casino. Somewhere along the line, it would be helpful for RFID to be credited, fully, with a seven-figure security “save.”

Asia remains a strong area of influence for RFID’s major players. In the United States, a balancing act may ensue. Can the expectations of RFID be lowered? Can the cost be reduced to fit budgets and thereby justify its use as a complementary, rather than primary, tool for operators?

We’ll see.

Throughout the industry, a feeling exists that RFID has underperformed. GPI, however, sees another success avenue.

Casino Connection Sports Editor Dave Bontempo is an award-winning sports writer and broadcaster who calls boxing matches all over the world. He has covered the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs, as well as numerous PGA, LPGA and Seniors Golf Tour events, and co-hosted the Casino Connection television program with Publisher Roger Gros.