18 months after launch, VisuaLimits’ VL-Focus is taking North American casinos by storm.
By Steven Ribet
The iPhone revolutionized telephony. Packing different tools, Swiss army knife-style, into a single device, it knocked traditional flip phones out of the market.
The Nevada firm VisuaLimits thinks it can do the same for table gaming, an area in the casino industry where innovation has historically been thin and slow. Its intelligent table limit sign goes way beyond telling gamblers how much they can bet. VL-Focus, as the product is called, is also a tool for marketing, customer relationship management, staff management, security, dispute resolution and optimizing resource allocation. Some 18 months after moving beyond pilot trials, over two thousand units are now installed in North American casinos. VisuaLimits recently found a distributor in Europe. Now it is adapting its offering for a push into Asia.
“Our product started out a decade ago as an advertising tool with basic analytics,” says VL-Focus’ developer and company COO Ryan McClellan. “Then five years ago we got the idea to make it into something really useful for table games, with a tool for every different department.”
The basic hardware for VL-Focus is a double-sided screen display. Positioned at a corner of a gaming table, the front side of this main unit faces the players with two cameras hidden above its screen, while the back side is a slanted touch-screen operated by the dealer. This main unit is connected to a second double-sided display polemounted above the tables fitted with two more cameras surveying the layout. Like the tools in a Swiss-army knife, casinos can pick and choose the modules, or applications, they want packed into the system. Here’s a run-down of those tools:
Information for gamers
The VL-Focus system includes a sensor in the discard rack, so it knows when the dealer is dealing, when the game is in-between hands and when the dealer is shuffling. Its player-facing screens can display table limits along with information on when those limits will change or when the table will close; say in a certain number of minutes or at the end of a shoe. Crucially, the change in displayed status takes place automatically as scheduled. Other rule changes, such as no mid-shoe entry when the minimum exceeds a certain amount, or a drop in the minimum when the table has sat idle for 30 minutes, can be customized as well as timed automatically. The same goes for targeted advertisements, played only during downtime and selected in line with the table’s limits. In other words, McDonald’s and Coors beer at a $5 minimum bet table, and Leer Jets and Beluga caviar at a $5,000 minimum bet table.
Security and dispute resolution
Modern casinos contain hundreds of ceiling-mounted cameras, although their distance and angle often makes them inadequate for detecting cheats and judging disputes. VL-Focus offers a much fuller view. The two cameras in its pole display look directly down on the table. One of the main display’s pair of cameras views the table. The other, a fish-eye, looks up at the players. “From low down and close up its easy to see the faces of excluded players or known cheats, even if they’re wearing hats. You’ve also got a side view of chip stacks in 1080p detail,” says McClellan. On-the-spot playback can start automatically from the beginning of a chosen hand. The casino might allow immediate resolution of disputes over small wagers, or send footage of a specified hand directly to security. Either way, game downtime or the time taken to search through footage is reduced.
Customer Relationship Management
Dealers can order drinks or tobacco for players, or request specified hosts via their touchscreens. They can also make restaurant reservations and be notified when a dining table is vacant. A dealer may be alerted when a VIP sits down. When a player buys in for a certain amount, a host may automatically be called to come over and greet them. VisuaLimits has made its system compatible with player tracking and rating software provided by other gaming suppliers. If a table is closing, the system can find vacancies at other tables with similar limits and hold the empty seats until the migrating players arrive. Most impressively, a ticket-in ticket-out (TITO) function has been incorporated to allow players to move, cash-free, between slots and tables. Promoting such “cross-play” reduces demand on the casino cage, as well as time spent by players cashing out.
In addition to monitoring staff punctuality via swipe card login, videoanalyzing software in the VL-Focus main unit can measure the number of hands a dealer is getting through each hour. “Normally, a casino might review a dealer’s performance once a month by surveilling him or her for a quarter hour and then multiplying by four to get the hourly figure. With our system dealers can assess themselves hour-by-hour,” says McClellan. He reckons a five percent increase in efficiency, or two extra hands per hour, via such self-coaching is a realistic target. When attained, he says the gains would typically pay for the system in 6 months. Conversely, if reviewed footage shows a dealer underpaying or overpaying a player, a pit manager has the ability to use the system to submit an incident report. Too many such reports in a given month might call for mentoring, or identify a specific dealer as a liability.
Lastly, information from every VL-Focus equipped table in a casino can be fed into a central computer, digested and analyzed for weekly or monthly reports. In this way, a casino manager can fine-tune variables like limits, staffing levels for different shifts and tables allocated to different games or smoking/non-smoking, for optimized overall resource allocation.
Further capabilities now under development include card recognition and chip recognition, which will enhance VL-Focus’ value as a tool for analyzing play and tracking cheats. While facial recognition technology may work for biometric passports, McLellan says the technology is still far away from being useful for his purposes.
With Asia in mind, McClellan has finished an application for baccarat; to analyze how long it takes a dealer to stage a table, bring out the cards and finish a round.
The earliest version of VL-Focus was created in the middle of the last decade by combining the ideas of two men. McClellan, who was a young pit technician at Detroit’s Motor City Casino, had the idea of putting a sensor in a discard rack to track cycles of play. While there he met up with Perry Stasi, an executive who had been in the business for 25 years, who wanted signs to display advertisements to players during downtime. Development really took off five years ago, with the idea of incorporating cameras for more sophisticated monitoring and analysis.
After a six-month pilot test, the first mature VL-Focus units were installed in US casinos in mid-2014. Since then sales have mushroomed. Today they are on over 2,200 tables in 36 North American casinos. The most recent installation was 155 units in Atlantic City’s Borgata. While few customers opt to buy every module, McClellan says the most popular functions are dealer analytics and messaging (for drink requests, hosts and so forth).
Having recently taken-on Eurocoin as its distributor in Europe and Africa, VisuaLimits is now gearing up for a push into the Asian market. MGM is an existing customer in the US, which may help the company crack into the Macau market, given MGM’s presence in the continent’s gambling capital. In any case, Macau’s casinos are under extreme pressure to improve efficiency, given the limited table quotas they are being given by the government. “There are only two ways to improve profitability: manage limits and manage dealer performance,” says McClellan. “We can help casinos do that. It’s their quickest way to earn more money.”