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Arnold M. Knightly


Technology: Touch and Go

27 Aug 2007

By Arnold M. Knightly

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Imagine being able to virtually visit Harrah's Entertainment's seven Strip properties from the concierge's desk at Bally's.

Or e-mail photos of a trip to Caesars Palace by wirelessly retrieving photos from a cell phone.

Or purchase a ticket for George Wallace at the Flamingo while bowling at Lucky Strike Lanes at the Rio.

Or take a virtual tour of the Pure nightclub at Caesars Palace.

All with the slightest touch of a finger on a tabletop.

A partnership between gaming giant Harrah's Entertainment and technology giant Microsoft Corp. will make that possibility a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Harrah's is working to adapt the Microsoft Surface, a wireless table-top computer designed with a touch-screen surface, into a virtual concierge.

Surface computers range in price from $5,000 to $10,000 each. They can be used by multiple people at once and can be adapted to recognize objects, such as Total Rewards customer loyalty cards, that are dropped anywhere on their table tops. "Surface puts people in control," is Microsoft's slogan.

Harrah's Chief Innovation Officer Tim Stanley said the company is looking at ways to customize the technology to better serve its customers in "high-touch" customer environments: Total Rewards diamond lounges, concierge desks, nightclubs and restaurants. Harrah's is only working on nongaming applications, he added.

"How can we better interact with you?" Stanley said. "What can you do with us? How can we make it fun and interesting and exciting? How can we take advantage of your Total Rewards points or status? This is part of that strategy that will go into the bigger plan. We can put this in lots of properties."

Microsoft unveiled the Surface on May 30 at a media event in Carlsbad, Calif. The company spent the past six years researching and developing the table-top computer. Microsoft plans to make the Surface commercially available during 2008's second quarter.

Mark Bolger, Microsoft's senior director of marketing for Surface, said the computer fits with his company's belief that every surface could be a computer.

"We have a vision of where we want to take this technology so it will be pervasive in unique situations," Bolger said. "Harrah's certainly has a strong tradition of being visionary as it relates to the use of technology."

Harrah's began working with Microsoft 18 months ago, The gaming company received the first Surface prototype in late June at its corporate offices off the Las Vegas Beltway. Stanley said the company's current Surface strategy is to debut some applications at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in November and roll out a few tables to its properties in 2008.

In addition to its deal with Harrah's, Microsoft is partnering with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, T-Mobile USA and International Game Technology.

IGT and Microsoft are working to develop gambling applications tied to Surface computing. IGT spokesman Ed Rogich said the company may privately show some concepts at the Global Gaming Expo with the hope of debuting a gaming application at a casino sometime in 2008.

He said any applications would need regulatory approval before they could land on a casino floor. The Surface must be adapted for bill acceptors and credit card readers. They must also be able to produce an audit trail and address gambling security issues.

"For us it is taking the basic product and expanding it into what is a contained environment that is approvable within gaming jurisdictions,' Rogich said. "It's a unique challenge for us but we think one that could pay off with some very unique products in the end."

At Harrah's, Chris Chang, the company's new vice president of innovation and information technology strategy, heads a seven-person team assigned to customizing the table by developing concepts and applications and writing code.

One early application will be designed to let the company better serve the 44 million customers in the Total Rewards customer loyalty program. Stanley said nearly 80 percent of the Harrah's revenue is tracked through the card, Stanley said.

On a recent day, Change demonstrated the computer by running a Total Rewards card through an attached scanner. When customized, the card will be read by placing it on the surface.

After the scan, the customer's information appeared on the screen: name, Total Rewards points and activity suggestions based on information gained through the card. Change said the Surface will let customers plan their stays, from making restaurant reservations to buying show tickets and spa treatments, without leaving the table.

Chang also showed an early application in which faceless playing cards are dropped on the surface and read to reveal if the customer won any Total Rewards points or food or drink at a restaurant.

"The possibilities are confined to what you can come up with," Chang said.

As Harrah's information technology department works to customize the Surface for its roll-out, the company already plans to tie it to a larger master plan.

"We have bold plans to make our guests a visitor to the neighborhood as opposed to the property," Harrah's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gary Loveman said. "That is the opportunity we have with this big continuous space around Flamingo and the Las Vegas Boulevard which Caesars is a critical part. We are right in the midst of that now, and (technology) will come to be a very, very important part of it."

For Harrah's, the Surface is the latest use of technology to drive customer service on and off the casino floor. David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Harrah's aggressive pursuit of new technology, specifically the Total Rewards card, helped the company grow from a midlevel operator in the mid-1990's to the world's largest gaming company by revenue.

"What it helped them to do a couple years ago was to take a pretty geographically far-flung group of midmarket casinos and turn that into a gaming powerhouse," Schwartz said.


Microsoft's new Surface computer comes with a 30-inch screen and is 22 inches high, 21 inches deep and 42 inches wide. Its features include:

Direct interaction: Users can actually "grab" digital information with their hands, interacting with content by touch and gesture, without the use of a mouse or keyboard.

Multitouch recognition: Recognizes many points of contact simultaneously, not just from one finger like a typical touch-screen.

Multiuser capability: Several people can gather around the surface computer together, providing a collaborative, face-to-face experience.

Object recognition: Users can place physical objects on the surface to trigger different types of digital responses, including the transfer of digital content.


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