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Safe Return

Innovators and inventors produce technology to allow for a safe, healthy return to casino operations

Safe Return

After enduring months of an unprecedented shutdown of the casino industry, operators in May began preparing to open their doors once again to the public. However, everyone knows opening up the casino industry is not as simple as flipping the light switch, cranking up the machines, staffing the tables and opening the doors.

Operators and customers alike will return to a new normal—a world in which social distancing, constant cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and products to guard against contagions will be necessary companions to spinning reels, playing cards and dice.

Some have thought it impossible to reopen the casino industry before a vaccine is developed for the Covid-19 coronavirus that has kept people around the world in their homes for more than two months. Operators must consider the health and safety of customers as they slowly ramp business up again. That means safety measures must be in place to guard against spread of the deadly virus—before those doors open up.

The problems of keeping customers safe upon the reopening of casinos and hotels mean players will ultimately return to gaming floors that look significantly different than before the global pandemic hit. Customers will face monitoring of their temperatures upon entering, slot floors with fewer operational machines—perhaps separated from each other by physical dividers—and table games with fewer play stations available.

The challenges of keeping customers and employees safe have inspired the innovators, researchers and inventors of the industry to produce technology that will allow the industry’s businesses to safely ramp up operations. As technology has transformed the gaming floor of the past, it is reinventing the operations of the future, with the goal of assuring customers health and safety as they enjoy gaming.

Here is a sampling of some of the innovations that will promote a safe return to gaming operations for both players and employees.

Quick Temps, Safe Gateways

The first line of defense against the Covid-19 virus will be present at the front door of the casino, whenever that door does open. It is widely believed that one important safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus will be to screen out customers who already show symptoms of the virus. One of the most obvious ways to do that is by taking everyone’s temperature at the door.

The temperature threshold suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require further testing for the virus, and quarantine, is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Consequently, several vendors are offering thermal devices that will screen temperatures at entry points to a property.

Two products from Las Vegas-based Empire Technological Group, and affiliated company Pro-Tek, LLC—both companies are owned by entrepreneur Frank Feng—are designed not only for the sole purpose of guarding against the spread of the pandemic, but for continued use once the pandemic has passed or an effective vaccine is found.

A perfect example is the Eye-Pod (l.), a freestanding temperature sensor that resembles an iPhone, that can operate either as a stand-alone unit or linked to a casino’s system network. In addition to an instant temperature gauge, the Eye-Pod is a facial-detection, facial-recognition unit, not to mention a method for employees to clock in and out with no common touching of a surface, as would be necessary with a time clock.

“The Eye-Pod is a fever-detection, facial detection, face recognition system,” says Kelcey Allison, vice president of Pro-Tek and CEO of Empire distributor GSL Gaming. “In layman’s terms, you walk up to the device, it scans to make sure you are a physical human and reads the temperature of your skin within 200 milliseconds, to determine whether you have a temperature anomaly or not.”

However, the Eye-Pod will retain its usefulness even if the need to gauge temperatures goes away. First, its facial-recognition capabilities will allow casinos to quickly identify customers who may be banned from casino play, either by self-exclusion or blacklisting. Second, those same capabilities, when the unit is networked with player tracking systems, will aid casino hosts in recognizing when their best players are in the house.

“(Hosts) can go up to players and greet them very quickly, instead of the player taking his player card, going to a kiosk, and touching a screen,” Allison says. “It’s all done by facial recognition.”

Finally, operators can use the Eye-Pod as a freestanding electronic time clock. “It will be a clock-in/clock-out device for employers, so their employees can come up to the Eye-Pod device, and scan their face, make sure they don’t have a fever or anomaly in their temperature, and clock them in for the day,” Allison says. “And when they leave, they clock out the same way. They’re not touching any devices.”

Allison says Pro-Tek’s challenge with the Eye-Pod is keeping up with demand. “We’re shipping them daily by the bushel-load,” he says.

Pro-Tek is offering a second temperature-sensing product with a dual use, called the Walk Thru Thermal Gate. This is a gate that is a combination temperature monitor and metal detector. “We incorporated both technologies,” Allison says.

“The reason is, especially after October 1 (2017, the date of the Mandalay Bay mass shooting), no casinos put the metal detection in. So it was a very good launching pad for us to start with the metal detection, because obviously with the Covid-19, Nevada is at 19 percent unemployment. We’re having incidents in grocery stores already with knives… We just want to keep our employees and patrons safe.”

The Walk Thru Thermal Gate is compact and effective. “We wanted to focus on incorporating technology that is quick, and as unobtrusive as possible when walking into a casino,” says Allison. “As you’re walking up, it detects (temperature and any metal) from 30 feet, with a span of about 15 feet wide.

“We use weapons-grade thermal technology that you cannot buy off the shelf, manufactured in Germany. As you’re walking up to the monitoring station, it actually can see people prior to them coming into the safety gate. Once they go through the safety gate, if there is anomaly, we can say, ‘We need to talk to you.’ If there’s nothing wrong, you keep on walking though. There’s no intrusion whatsoever.”

Allison says Pro-Tek has sold around 200 of the thermal gates already, and one customer, a large California casino, offers a glimpse of the “new normal” in is application, which is a lot like the combined entry/exit points used by Target and other retailers. “They’ve reconfigured their porte cochere,” he says. “The new normal is that if you have a 12-door entry to your porte cochere, six would be for entry and six would be for exit. It’s very quick.”

UV Solution

Once patrons are inside the “new normal” casino, social distancing will be the norm, at least for the near term. This will be achieved through floor configuration to maintain six feet between players, or through a variety of acrylic shield products being produced by various manufacturers that provide a physical barrier between players.

Any of these methods, of course, still require consistent cleaning and sanitizing of all slot machine surfaces, as well as constant sanitizing of cards, chips, dice, and even cash.

Gaming Arts, the Las Vegas-based bingo and slot supplier founded by David Colvin, offers a simple solution to this latter necessity: UV lighting. Colvin, who is CEO of Gaming Arts, was a well-known inventor with a list of patents to his credit even before he founded the supplier. Among others, he is credited with inventing the “Product Activation” technology that solved the problem of pirated software that was costing software producers billions annually.

Around the time the first notions of an extended industry shutdown cropped up in early March, Colvin began researching the use of UV solutions to battle the spread of the Covid-19 virus in casinos. “As you may be aware, UV lighting is extremely effective in killing microbial viruses,” Colvin says. “Such products were generally confined to the medical industry. We started work on a number of different applications of the technology.”

The R&D focused first on the surfaces of electronic gaming machines, or EGMs, which was the initial concern leading to the industry shutdown, since Covid-19 can live for days on such surfaces.

According to Colvin, Gaming Arts has developed a variety of delivery devices for UV lighting that can disinfect all surfaces of a slot machine. All are offered under the brand name PlayerGuard.

“On a slot machine, we have probably a dozen different locations where we could mount UV lighting,” Colvin explains. “That would either be in the form of a UV lamp or a UV LED. We would mount those on the slot machine so it would decontaminate the entirety of the machine, with a concentration on the button deck and the peripheral deck.

“As an example, almost all slot machines now have the LED trim—the lighted classic ornamental trim. One of our embodiments would be to replace a conventional R-G-B LED lighting strip with our lighting strips, which also include UV protection. Other embodiments include a retrofit model. So, it wouldn’t necessarily apply only to new machines.” The technology also sanitizes ancillary slot equipment like bill validators, magnetic card readers and printers.

PlayerGuard, though, is not just for slot machines. It has applications across all levels of the gaming floor, including all table games. “As we were starting to look into this, it struck me that casinos are unique, in that they have a great deal of possibly contaminated items, with many hands on these items,” says Colvin. “We have embodiments for existing shufflers; we have embodiments where it’s a separate device, where it works similar to a shuffler. Let’s say you have a six-deck shoe. Once you collect the cards, you would run them through a sterilization unit first—it doesn’t take long. You would then transfer them over to an existing shuffler. So, nothing that’s contaminated goes into the shuffler itself. When the dealer removes those six decks out of the shuffler and the cards go into play, each card has been sanitized.”

PlayerGuard also has applications for chip trays with the UV lighting under the actual chips, constantly disinfecting them. “We would basically swap out the chip trays for a UV version, where the UV would come from underneath,” Colvin says, “so, as the chips either enter or exit the chip tray, they are subjected to the UV lighting to disinfect those chips.”

The same principle applies to the dice in craps games. “We have a UV device which would sit on top of the craps table,” says Colvin. “You collect the dice and leave the dice there until you have a new shooter. As the dice sit there in this tray, they will be disinfected.”

While Colvin has filed for patents for the UV technology, Gaming Arts is making the technology available to other suppliers and operators. “The company has made the decision to work collaboratively with customers as well as other manufacturers who have interest, to make sure that the entire gaming industry and all casinos will have access to these technological advances that protect players and staff alike,” Colvin says.

Gaming Arts also is offering acrylic barriers for the slot floor. Called SlotShield, the barriers, already in the advanced prototype stage, are ready for production. They have been designed with player use in mind. “One of the things we look at is optimal implementation,” says Colvin. “We look at very subtle characteristics, like whether a shield would interfere with someone having a drink.” Sizing also is crucial, he says, as barriers should not reduce space in aisleways.

According to Colvin, while the SlotShields are ready for mass production, one thing hampering that production is the availability of the acrylic material used to produce them. “A property with 2,500 machines may require 2,000 of these shields. So, we’re going through a great deal of acrylic sheets. And we live in a world where everybody wants these shields, from supermarkets to the DMV to offices to bars.”

He says casinos should consider reconfiguring slot machines into pods before considering acrylic shields, noting that circular pods generically place at least six feet between players, achieving social distancing without extra equipment. Where he says shields will be required is at typically crowded video poker bars and at table games, as an alternative to reducing the number or players per table. Gaming Arts has shields designed for both specific purposes.

“One suggestion going around in Nevada is that with a typical blackjack table, you’ll have to decrease from six positions to two,” Colvin notes. “Being a former casino owner, I know that with two players, you would have to raise the minimum bet to $25 just to break even. So, in the case of table games, we have shield dividers, so hopefully people will feel safe playing with six or seven players.”

UV Sanitizer

Gaming Arts is not alone in looking at ultraviolet lighting for its ability to decontaminate objects and surfaces. In late May, London-based TCSJohnHuxley, one of the world’s largest suppliers of table game equipment, officially launched the first products in its new “Care & Protect” range, headed by The Chip Sanitiser, a unit that uses UV-C light technology to sanitize more than 80 chips within a few minutes.

The Chip Sanitiser utilizes UV-C light technology to quickly neutralize germs that can cause infection, using a unique patent-pending design that ensures every surface of the chip is cleaned. It also incorporates a safety mechanism, so the machine will not operate unless the unit is completely shut, guaranteeing no harmful UV light can escape.

Its flexible design allows for one unit to be fixed under a gaming table playing surface or multiple units to be stacked in the gaming pit to sanitize hundreds of chips in minutes.

“Since the shutdown of casinos worldwide, it was evident that the industry was going to have to make radical changes to ensure the safety and well-being of their staff and customers once they were back up and running,” said Tristan Sjöberg, executive chairman of TCSJohnHuxley, in a statement. “As a result, we have developed our Care & Protect range of products that will provide the right tools to kick-start our industry as well as bringing peace of mind to everyone who works in or visits a casino. The offerings will continue evolving and expanding to serve the needs of our customers.”

According to the company, the Chip Sanitiser will be ready for delivery when gaming operations are ramped up.

Smart Spaces

Colvin, of course, isn’t the only accomplished inventor in the gaming space. John Acres, the inventor of player tracking and bonusing systems, has his own arm’s-length list of patents. When the call for innovators went out, it’s no surprise Acres and his Acres 4.0 systems company would answer the call.

Many casinos will opt to achieve social distancing by shutting off one or two slot machines on either side of each active machine. That will not only require shutting down otherwise high-earning games, but will require manpower to clean and disinfect the ones that are in service after each use.

Acres 4.0 is offering two products that will address these problems, both based on system technology already in place from Acres.

Clean Machine automatically detects when customers finish each play session and instantly dispatches an employee to clean the gaming machine, using Acres’ Kai system of employee alerts. A placard is placed on each cleaned machine to help players quickly find games that are ready for play. Clean Machine intelligently schedules hand-washing hygiene breaks to keep employees safe, and is readily adaptable to table games.

Acres says the company is going to provide the Clean Machine module for free to anyone who wants it.

Smart Space, offered as a module to Acres 4.0’s CyberMax casino management system, allows casinos to operate slot floors without removing gaming machines or chairs, or even picking which games to shut down. When play begins at a gaming machine, adjacent machines, within a casino-defined social distance, are instantly disabled. When play ends, the surrounding machines are automatically enabled and the just-played machine is disabled until it is appropriately cleaned.

“The alternative is to turn off every other game, remove chairs or remove them from the floor,” Acres says. “This way, they don’t have to do any of that reconfiguration. We’ve got a couple of places that are really excited about this.”

Under the system, the casino decides the social distancing required. “When you begin play and put your card in, the machines around you lock up; they are disabled,” Acres says. “When you are finished, the other machines unlock, and using Kai, we call a cleaner, and when the cleaning is finished, that machine unlocks.”

He adds that the system is flexible enough that an attendant can easily unlock a second machine when couples want to play adjacent games.

Long-Lasting Disinfectants

Many suppliers are using combinations of methods that can help effect a safe return to gaming operations. Sister companies Dulce Solutions and RBY Gaming are proposing a collection of products to sanitize surfaces and gaming equipment, headed by the Zoono long-lasting disinfectant and Terminator, which uses high-intensity UV lighting to sanitize not only gaming equipment in the pit, but protective masks to be worn by employees and customers.

Zoono is a liquid disinfectant that has been used in a variety of applications, including hospitals, hotels, convention space and theaters. It has been proven to kill 99.99 percent of germs on surfaces, and key to its potential in casinos is the fact it lasts up to 30 days on any treated surface. It also can be used on the skin, and one treatment lasts up to 24 hours. It is water-based, alcohol-free and non-toxic.

“Independent testing has proven Zoono is effective in Covid-19, as well as creating a protective surface barrier to combat against it,” says Candice Chandler-DeGregorio, president of Dulce Solutions.

She adds that unlike other antimicrobial products, Zoono works when dry. “As a liquid, Zoono is less toxic than vitamin C and coffee,” she says. “When applied to a surface by spraying, wiping or ‘fogging,’ Zoono leaves behind a mono-molecular layer that is permanently bonds to the surface. Routine cleaning can continue and does not disrupt the Zoono molecule or its antimicrobial activity.”

The Terminator is a system of high-intensity UV-C lamps that primarily is used to disinfect protective masks for reuse. According to Chandler-DeGregorio, the Terminator can disinfect up to 700 masks an hour, allowing them to be reused by the same employees up to 10 times.

Beyond masks, though, the lamp system can be used in the pit to sanitize gaming chips. “The Terminator can be placed in gaming pits, and has the ability to sanitize gaming chips at a rate of 100,000 chips per hour,” says Chandler-DeGregorio. “Gaming chips are likely some of the dirtiest objects in a casino, and for players (and staff) to see them being sanitized regularly in front of their eyes will go a long way in gaining trust.”

Shielding the Tables

Software and UV solutions will join a variety of clear-shield products as casino floors reopen. Some are being produced and distributed by more traditional gaming suppliers. One such product for the table-game pit is the VisiDeal Shield (l.), being distributed by supplier AGS for Tioli Gaming.

The VisiDeal Shield is a heat-formed, curved Plexiglas shield, produced in the form of dividers that can accommodate from two to six players on a table game. It is easy to install, and fits all standard blackjack and novelty table games. Custom manufacturing is available to accommodate craps, roulette and poker tables as well.

“The key to the VisiDeal Shield is that it was designed by an experienced group of table games industry veterans,” explains John Hemberger, vice president of table products for AGS. “Everything about the player and dealer experience was considered when designing it, so that dealing procedures can stay as close to ‘normal’ as possible while adding this additional layer of player and dealer safety to the table games experience.”

The product has a simple installation process that utilizes three industrial-grade poles installed into the table top for blackjack-style tables. “This allows for a very sturdy and secure installation,” Hemberger says. “Removal is quite simple, allowing for the table to return to pre-install conditions, and easy storage of the VisiDeal Shields on property.

“We are excited to partner with our friends at Tioli Gaming as the exclusive distributor for the VisiDeal Shield,” Hemberger says. “As casino operators adapt to the ‘new normal’ with a focus on protecting their patrons and staff, this is nice way to do it.”

According to Hemberger, AGS and Tioli have already signed agreements for more than 500 VisiDeal Shields, and they are rapidly approaching 1,000. “These VisiDeal units will be installed across the U.S., including in Florida, Connecticut, West Virginia, California, Arkansas, Mississippi and Washington.”

What About the Restroom?

Once customers are safely in casinos, they, of course, will need to use the restrooms, which were a point of concern for hygiene even before the Covid-19 crisis. One company that was already in line to solve this problem was Brill Hygienic Products, which has been providing the Brill Sanitary Toilet Seat Cover as part of 35 years of supplying the casino hotel industry.

The Brill seat uses a feeder system to place new, sanitary plastic covers over toilet seats without the customer having to touch anything. The customer simply uses a hand-activation device on the wall to feed a new, sanitary covering to a toilet seat.

The Brill Sanitary System is already in use at over 40 casinos including Mohegan Sun, Resorts World New York, Morongo, all three Creek Casinos in Alabama, Wind Creek Bethlehem, Rivers Casinos, Chumash, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, Ilani Casino, Mystic Lakes and many others.

“Before Covid 19, people were concerned about bathroom sanitation, sitting on a dirty toilet seat or even using a porous paper seat cover that many times didn’t cover the seat completely or fell off the seat prior to sitting,” says David Jablow, COO of Brill Hygienic Products. “Now with the Covid virus, we know you can transmit it just by touching paper or a metal surface—and this has made everyone very nervous.

“With the Brill Sanitary System, just a waive of the hand over the wall-mounted sensor will provide the user with a 100 percent sanitary surface to sit on without touching any paper or a metal dispenser.”

It’s just one necessary item among the many that will be required as the casino industry reopens. “Never in my half-century of gaming experience have casinos faced a threat as potentially disastrous as this Covid crisis,” says Acres. “But with effort, perseverance and innovation, I am convinced we can build an exciting, successful new future of fun and success.”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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