The Aging Eyes Of Vegas
- By Steven Titch
- Feb 03, 2009
As a key vertical market in security and surveillance, the casino industry presents a dual personality.
One face reflects the worldwide trend toward integrating casino security operations into overarching IT systems that facilitate hotel and property management. Casinos in Europe, South America and, most notably, Macau, which the Chinese government is developing into an international gaming and entertainment destination, could be showcases for strategically integrated hotel-casino management operations.
Similarly, in the U.S., American Indian tribal gaming is discovering the benefits of digital video surveillance integration with other security operations, although on a smaller scale.
The gaming industry’s other self, ensconced in Las Vegas, the worldwide gaming capital, remains heavily dependent on aging analog equipment that is getting more difficult to maintain and replace, and is increasingly isolating surveillance systems from hotel-wide business operations.
“People see CSI and expect Vegas to be state of the art,” said Willy Allison, president and co-founder of World Game Protection, the Las Vegas-based consulting group and organizer of the annual conference bearing its name. In fact, he said, only about 20 percent of the Strip properties have gone digital, with the rest relying on older analog legacy equipment.
This year, Las Vegas properties face a double squeeze. Southern Nevada has been among the areas hit worst by the falling real estate values that helped triggered the recession.
Revenues have slumped, and most properties have had to slash costs, including surveillance budgets.
Analog On Life Support
Yet, even as casinos try to eke more life from their current systems, time is running out for the older technology itself.
No one is manufacturing VCRs anymore, and when units, or just basic parts, such as tapeheads, need to be replaced, integrators are simply taking them out of warehoused inventory, Allison said. Mike Stack, director of surveillance at Marnell Sher Gaming’s Colorado Belle Hotel and Casino, Laughlin, Nev., said it’s only a matter of time before a surveillance supervisor calls a supplier to order a replacement part and is told it’s no longer available.
That probably won’t happen at Marnell Sher properties though. Its M Resort, opening in March on the Las Vegas Strip, will use a fully digital IP-based video surveillance system integrated with other hotel operations. On the rest of the Strip, however, properties are cobbling hybrid systems together.
Is it penny-wise and pound-foolish to nurse legacy analog equipment? Critics such as Allison and surveillance professionals, such as Stack, say the savings and value digital offers are documentable. Yet, it is difficult to judge given the economy, the debt situation faced by the U.S. hotelcasino industry and the reality of the sixto- seven figure price tag of a new surveillance system.
In addition to the recession, Vegas has other factors working against digital video adoption. First is a regulatory regime that generally wants video surveillance kept separate from other casino operations. Although this is not an absolute, the Nevada Gaming Commission places the burden on the casino to demonstrate the reliability and effectiveness of an interconnected system.
These rules have helped reinforce a corporate culture in which surveillance remains self-contained. “The worse thing to do is call surveillance people security,” said Fredrik Nilsson, general manager at Axis Communications, a manufacturer of IP cameras, headquartered in Chelmsford, Mass.
Nilsson sees the casino market as divided into three segments: Nevada and other state-regulated gaming and resort venues, such as Atlantic City, N.J., and the Tunica, Biloxi-Gulfport areas of Mississippi; tribal American Indian nation gaming properties, which are subject to far less, if any, state regulation; and international gaming.
Of the three, it’s the international scene, led by Macau, Nilsson said, that’s leading the trend toward integrating video security with other resort security and guest management systems. Ironically, some of the Macau properties, such as Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s Venetian Macau and the Wynn Macau, are owned by parent companies with major Nevada holdings.
Macau Takes The Lead
Macau points to the way security and surveillance can be integrated into a wider range of applications, such as marketing and customer support, yielding not only greater guest and game protection but measurable competitive benefits, including greater guest satisfaction and more productive business processes, that encompass hospitality management.
Macau represents “the next evolution,” said Mauricio Sanchez, chief security architect at Hewlett-Packard’s ProCurve unit, a supplier of gigabit Ethernet switches to the Venetian hotels in Macau and Las Vegas. Las Vegas Sands sees IP as a critical asset to the success of its casino operations, Sanchez said. Ethernet IP supports business operations, financial data, the slot machines on the floor, all video cameras and people tracking. It supports and manages all entertainment and communications capabilities in guest suites -- TV, phone and Internet.
Used strategically, guest information and video can be brought together for “massive personalization of the gaming experience,” Sanchez said. For example, when a high roller slides his player’s card into a slot machine, cameras can immediately pan to his location. At the same time, marketing can immediately be alerted. “A host can be sent to greet him or get him a drink. Comps can be generated automatically,” Sanchez said. “The hotel can monitor the guest experience and create feedback.”
What’s notable at Sands is that its Las Vegas-based IT management is driving much of this integration strategy in Macau, Sanchez said. Yet that same strategy is getting some resistance in the United States.
In Vegas, “turf battles are more present,” he said, although they are not atypical of those fought in corporate America.
In many ways, Sands typifies the dual nature of the casino market. While the company’s Venetian Macau video systems are state of the art, the Venetian in Las Vegas works with a cumbersome hybrid of the latest digital networking equipment and older analog cameras.
Neither the Venetian nor the Palazzo, which opened in January 2008, is using IP for live video, said Bob Banerjee, product marketing manager for IP video products at Bosch Security Systems Inc. in Fairport, N.Y. Instead, the hotels are using Bosch Allegiant analog matrix switches to connect the video feeds to a digital network, where video can be managed and stored in parallel with analog systems.
One reason for doing so is surveillance people are more familiar with the existing equipment and how it’s organized, Banerjee said. “They know the cameras, they know the IDs and can access them very quickly,” he said. He also touted the reliability of analog matrix switches. “It’s like a refrigerator -- if it’s working after 15 minutes, it will be working after a couple of decades,” he said.
But others see the isolation of surveillance in Vegas as ultimately becoming counterproductive. Analog surveillance is “like a little island within a bigger operation,” said Steve Wright, vice president of sales-casinos for IndigoVision, Edinburgh, U.K. “It is extremely hard to interface into everything else.”
Yet, integration is exactly what casinos want, Wright said. Their goal, he explained, is to integrate video into other areas, such as access control and POS. For example, the surveillance room should be alerted anytime a cash register void is posted at a hotel shop. This can ensure the transaction is legitimate in real time and catch any employee theft problems. Video also can be used to manage desk staffing at check-in and check-out and provide feedback opportunities.
Wright acknowledged regulations that keep video separate can be an obstacle to progress, but they are not insurmountable.
“There’s reluctance for gaming commissions to allow surveillance to input and output outside the video system,” he said. “American Indian nations can get approval in a couple of days. American Indian businesses are much more open and willing to connect through the organization. In Vegas, it takes weeks or months and, sometimes, a trial and documented evidence. Yet, when I explain firewalls, user access controls, password certification to regulatory people, they get it.”
World Game Protection’s Allison sees the shift to digital and integration as necessary for efficient operations going forward.
“Digital technology is not just a security function; it’s a business intelligence function,” he said. “It really does save money, and it really does catch theft and cheats.”
Even though the digital transition can be costly, the stakes are high for those who do nothing, Allison warned. A skilled cheater can take a casino for $100,000 in a few hours. On the marketing side, integrated surveillance and security can be used to better manage guests and separate the true high rollers from comp hustlers.
“Vegas overcomps by some 20 percent,” Allison said, amounting to about $20 million of the $100 million in free rooms, meals and chips offered every year going to players who do not return that value.
Still, Allison said, the current Vegas culture will be hard to change. “Surveillance and IT seem to have a wall between them. When IT starts getting a hand on security, [surveillance] gets defensive,” he said. But there are great opportunities from working in common. “Together they can come up with a fantastic system.”
A few Nevada properties are making the transition. Bally’s and Oasis properties reportedly are going digital. The spotlight is brightest on Marnell’s new M Resort, which will use what Wright said is the most advanced surveillance system in the world. Even Allison, never afraid to voice criticism of Vegas’ surveillance shortcomings, is impressed. “The M is taking a quantum leap,” he said.
The M, an IndigoVision customer, will mark the first implementation of H.264 video compression in any casino worldwide, Wright said. Analytics will be incorporated into the system. Recording and storage will mirror the architecture in the company’s Colorado Belle property. Eight NVRs will be used with a total of 112 TB of redundant array of independent disks storage providing continuous recording at 4 CIF and 30 frames per second for seven days.
Another NVR with 7 TB of storage will be installed to provide fully redundant recording.
All the equipment exists on an open platform to which equipment can be added when scale demands. “It’s on a level above anything we’ve done before,” Wright said. “There are digital encoders, video management, most efficient NVRs, but the M is not locked in. If you look at history, open systems have been the only thing that works.”
Many of the lessons learned from the Colorado Belle will be put into action on the Strip’s latest showcase.
At the Colorado Belle, which uses IndigoVision video systems and Pivot3 storage, Stack, the surveillance director, knows first hand the benefits of digital.
When it comes to checking incidents, he said “it takes 30 seconds to do what once took at least 15 minutes.”
Faster review and decision making are probably the easiest benefits of digital to grasp. For example, a surveillance employee catches an onscreen glimpse of what appears to be a player capping a bet.
With an analog system using VCRs and tape, the employee would have to leave the station (short-handing real-time observation), go to the tape room, identify the VCR associated with the camera, rewind the tape and review the image.
Depending on the quality of the image, the employee may want to involve a supervisor.
It could take up to an hour to make a determination that the player was indeed cheating, and by then, he may have left the casino.
By contrast, the Colorado Belle’s digital system allows the surveillance employee to play back an incident immediately, Stack said. The digital image is sharper, and depending on the camera, in-frame zoom may be possible. “We can have an answer to the pit in less than one minute,” Stack said. “Digital recording allows us to do more with less.”
Steven Titch is editor of Network-Centric Security magazine.