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Gaming

Welcome to the future of Las Vegas

What will casinos look like in 2033, and will they still be fabulous?

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In 20 years, will we be wearing digital clothes and playing blackjack with holographic dealers? It’s certainly possible.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

It’s 8 p.m. July 11, 2033. Hot and getting hotter. There’s a high of 117 outside McCarran International Airport, and you’re fighting the odd desire to crack an egg over the asphalt, Tweetagram it.

You can see the Strip through the glass window at arrivals. It looks roughly the same as you remember—the iconic shapes of the Luxor, Paris and Wynn still cutting through the sky—but you’ve heard a lot has changed since your last visit.

“You want in?” your girlfriend asks, sitting in a semicircle of friends. She’s put together a Texas hold ’em table on her tablet, connected to a pack of players in a hotel room at Caesars Palace. There’s time to kill before the shuttle arrives, but you shake your head. You’d prefer to stay a fly on the wall in this virtual city.

You glance at the screen of your SmartClothes, glowing on your forearm, vibrating. It’s a message from McCarran: You’ve been awarded a special game promotion, 10 free plays on a game of your choice. You consider sitting down just as a woman screams. She’s beautiful, dark-haired, and now, thanks to a jackpot, she’s rich. She plunges her hand into a waterfall of gold coins pouring from the vintage machine. Only they’re not coins; they’re virtual realities.

Welcome to the New Las Vegas.

The future of gaming in Las Vegas sounds a lot like science fiction. In 2013, cutting-edge technology, from biometrics to holograms to immersive Internet gaming, has already started bleeding into casino development. And the tastes of the ever-changing demographics of visitors demand that casino operators keep up with the technology in their pockets.

Experts tend to agree on one thing: While Las Vegas is known as a master of reinvention, business practices on the Strip might not be changing fast enough.

I talked with analysts, developers and academics about their vision of tomorrow’s Las Vegas. I granted them anonymity if it meant they’d speak candidly. Many chose to stay anonymous, because their opinions, they said, could spark controversy.

“They want to keep milking the same cow again and again and again,” said one gaming consultant with more than two decades of experience in Las Vegas, referring to a “fading customer” over the age of 55.

Baby boomers and gamblers over 65 make up roughly 60 percent of all customers visiting land-based casinos in the U.S., according to Chad Beynon, a gaming analyst with Cantor Fitzgerald. They enjoy traditional slots and spend the money to play, an average of $40 to $100 per trip. But as Beynon says, “It’s a dangerous business when the majority of your customers aren’t going to be around in 15 to 20 years.”

When boomers and Gen Xers vacate the casinos, millennials, who grew up with their hands wrapped around smartphones, will step in. To keep their attention, Vegas casinos will have to offer unique gaming experiences not found anywhere else—including on their mobile devices. How will they do it? Digitally.

The train doors slide open, and you step through the cloud of steam and onto Vegas’ new looping transit system. Destination: Steve Wynn’s latest megaresort, Trilogy.

Your Google Glass recognizes specific promotions at each of the resorts flying past the train windows like images in a slot machine. Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay. Today, they’re connected by a series of tunnels that move millions of people back and forth under the street. Last time you were here, 40 million people visited Las Vegas every year. Like the world population, that number has ballooned.

There’s a roller coaster, and another. Three Ferris wheels. A giant amusement park. The lady sitting next to you holds out her old-school iPhone like she’s about to snap a photo, but a slot machine materializes on her screen instead, a virtual one-armed bandit. She reaches out her free hand, grabs an imaginary lever in the air and pulls down. A song of whistles and chimes rolls through the train as she awaits her fate.

Walking toward the front desk of your resort, you notice the absence of slots and table games. Then there’s a tap on your shoulder.

“Mr. Ellis,” the bellman says, taking your bags. “Still drinking Corona these days?” He says he can have a bucket sent up to the room. You nod, wonder how this young man knows your name and your beer of choice. Then you look up and notice the eye in the sky: Facial recognition has been tracking you since the moment you walked through the door. The casino knows your interests from Facebook. They know where you ate last time you were in town, what beer you drank, how much you won and lost.

You creep past a virtual aquarium full of virtual fish and slip into the elevator. The button for Floor 22 is illuminated, even though you didn’t push it. The elevator has detected your digital room key and is zipping toward your destination.

In a small office building on Pilot Road in today’s Las Vegas, the future is already here.

Lauren O’Brien, marketing manager of Interblock, a luxury gaming company based in Slovenia, summons the Black Eyed Peas onstage, then brings the band to life with the tap of a finger on her iPad. Fergie croons for a moment, then disappears into thin air. The glamorous singer is a hologram.

The future is now at the Vegas offices of Slovenian company Interblock, where holographic dealers deal digital cards and throw dice that hang in the air

Dealer-less craps and roulette tables are already available at most major Strip casinos, and Fergie’s digital brethren, holographic dealers, are expected to make their Las Vegas debut in October.

With the push of a button, up pop two beautiful women. They deal digital cards and throw dice that float in the air. Equipped with a high-definition projector, these hologram machines can accommodate a couple hundred gamblers, though their debut will be much smaller, says O’Brien, who feels strongly about the role of augmented reality in the future of gaming.

“It’s all heading in this direction: automation,” she says, looking toward her virtual stage. “We’re eliminating dealers, but we’re creating a whole new experience.”

Others are skeptical that any technology could replace warm-blooded dealers in our lifetime. “There has been a lot of hoopla about everything virtual and all these holograms,” says Aron Ezra, president of Bally Technologies’ mobile division. “That’s certainly going to be a big piece of the world, but I think Vegas represents a tangible experience.”

Research shows that gamblers like being around other people, interacting with them. We’re social creatures, and dealers offer what machines cannot: personality and conversation. Gaming research on riverboats has shown an inherent need for casual gamblers to be around other gamblers. The busiest decks make the most dough, because players spend more when they’re gambling around other people.

Take a walk through the South Point or Mandalay Bay, and the automated craps tables are usually packed. That’s why the future of gaming might look a lot like Facebook.

One developer predicts a day when casino gamblers will have access to profiles of other players in a sort of social casino network. They’ll be able to interact, play against each other or arrange to meet for beers at happy hour.

Even without robust profiles, casinos are already expanding their presence online. In the second quarter of 2013, Caesars Interactive made more than $56 million from its mobile and Facebook apps. One of the most popular is Caesars Casino, free to join and featuring online video slots and table games. While players can’t win real money, they can spend it to buy game tokens. And they do.

Demand for social experiences has already transformed the Strip. Throw a rock on the Boulevard and you’ll probably hit a nightclub. If not, the rock might land in the construction site of some forthcoming thrill ride or outdoor venue. Visitors have been spending more money on non-gaming activities since 1999, and today, gaming accounts for just 36 percent of the cash pie in Vegas, the rest coming from food, booze, shows and retail.

The gap between gaming and non-gaming is a phenomenon unique to this city. When Boyd Gaming opened the Kansas Star in Wichita in late 2012, patrons stood in line for blocks just to play slot machines. The Star is now Boyd’s second-most-profitable casino, edged by the Borgata in Atlantic City. In Macau, where baccarat reigns supreme, high rollers gamble around $600 billion every year. That’s about as much cash as is withdrawn from all the ATM machines in the U.S. in a single year.

While gamblers in Nevada still spend a lot on gaming—about $10.8 billion in 2012—they’re spending much more elsewhere, and it shows on the casino floor. Slot presence has been declining for more than a decade, according to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, and casino floors in Nevada lost about 38,000 slot machines between 2000 and 2012, despite the openings of Wynn, Encore, Aria and the Cosmopolitan.

The number of poker tables has also dipped. A year after Chris Moneymaker won the largest jackpot in World Series of Poker history in 2003, the number of table games in Nevada swelled from 436 to 998. Today, they’re back on the decline.

Online, however, table games are on the rise. Available on cellphones and through social networks, Internet casino games—Facebook-based poker, slots, table games and bingo—are one of the most popular gaming genres on mobile devices, according to Eilers Research. Revenues are expected to double this year, as more players catch on and begin paying for more tokens to play.

In your hotel room of the future, everyone agrees they’re hungry.

“How ’bout sushi?” someone asks. You agree, and Siri³ makes reservations at Nobu at Caesars Palace. Your virtual companion knows you and your bank account well. A four-star restaurant is in your price range, albeit a bit of a splurge. Perfect for Vegas.

Your buddies sit on the beds playing battleship poker: two players, face-to-face, playing online hold ’em. Ten years ago, they might have held tablets; today they glance at the palms of their gloved hands, where a digital display shows their hole cards. The flop, turn and river land on their forearms. No table. No cards. Just clothes.

Downstairs on the casino floor, there are parlors and lounges labeled Zone 1, Zone 2 and so on. Each zone interacts with players in a different way, offering different games depending where you’re standing or sitting.

Today features a special promotion, according to a digital banner stretched across the room. You glance at some of the tables and notice people playing a game that looks an awful lot like Words With Friends. Except that they’re playing for money. A look at your forearm screen tells you there are 60 people in the room who share common interests with you. You can invite them to a game or join one.

You tap “Edit Profile.” You don’t have a picture yet, because you only half played around with it on the plane, where you jokingly typed your biography: “I’m Mr. Ellis, and I love cold Mexican beer on a hot Vegas night.” You’ve got 20 years on most of the folks here, but you share one thing in common: You all like beer.

You walk past the holographic dealers at automated tables until you find a blackjack table with a grizzled, human dealer flipping cards. You admire his gray mustache, say hello and throw down a $5 chip.

“A minute ago I didn’t expect to find a live dealer in this joint,” you say. “You’re a survivor.”

The dealer deals. “You roll with the punches, right?”

In a perfect world, Vegas casinos will avoid the fate of pinball parlors.

The parlors of the 1960s evolved into arcades, then consoles, then PCs, where players could connect to huge communities across the globe without leaving their living rooms. That led to massive, online multiplayer games. Then tablets changed everything. The pinball parlors and arcades? Mostly gone.

Many industry experts have shared the pinball anecdote. Some say Vegas has an advantage, the imagination and money to meet the demand.

“Boundaries are going to be breaking,” says Ezra, who has been leading Bally’s online charge. “People in the casino are going to be playing on their phones. Or wearing Google Glass and playing games that way.”

Some casinos have banned the use of Google Glass, but technology isn't going to stop advancing.

Some casinos have banned the use of Google Glass, but technology isn't going to stop advancing.

Some casinos have banned Google Glass, saying it takes away the house edge, but a mobile game developer scoffs. “Somebody will figure it out … Maybe it’s integrated into your clothing. Maybe you just look at your arm and the fabric on your arm is a display. Maybe the complement of the way it’s woven into your fabric and glasses creates an experience.”

It sounds possible, considering there’s more computing power in your iPhone than there was in both the rocket and mission-control center that put a man on the moon in 1969. But no matter how much technology changes the game—which will in part be dictated by the speed of the regulatory process—one thing likely won’t change: Customers want options. “You want to put out everything, like a supermarket,” Beynon says.

Whether they’re playing with a hologram, talking trash with the cute dealer from Detroit or playing online poker in a hotel room, people want experiences to share. Fodder for Facebook. Stories to bring home.

It’s your last night in future town, and it’s vital that you go Downtown to show your buddies a slice of Vegas past.

Fremont buzzes. A pair of zip-liners launches from SlotZilla overhead, and you lead your tech-savvy buddies to the D, all the way upstairs, to the vintage room.

There’s already a crowd surrounding the game you’re looking for, and they’re screaming, eyes wide, smiles plastered on faces. They’re hovering over the Sigma Derby race game, rooting for plastic horses running around the tabletop track. This round’s a squeaker—until the No. 4 horse runs out. As the crowd clears, you step forward, digging in your pocket for change.

Your buddies roll their eyes. But you’re focused on finding your horse, No. 21. Excitement washes over you as everyone pumps quarters into the machine. It’s the feeling of Old Vegas. And it’s still so good.

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