Frank Floor Talk: Casinos and two-way talk – yesterday and today

March 26, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
March 26, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

Relay, a relatively new vendor in the communications industry, is introducing some new features this month that could significantly help casinos improve their service, security, and response times. Interestingly, March has historically been a good month for two-way talk.

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Alexander Graham Bell was born on the 3rd of March in 1847. Of course, the Scotsman is credited with inventing the telephone which he patented on the 7th of the month, 29 years later. On March 10, he made the first phone call to his assistant Thomas Watson. He didn’t say, “Can you hear me now?” or “Are you are on mute?” Rather, the first words that history recorded were, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

It’s hard to imagine that before the telephone, two-way conversations were limited to posted letters, Morse code on the telegraph, and ships with flags, signal lights and radio telegraph. The Victoria Police in Australia were among the first to use large, car-mounted two-way radios in 1923.

Henryk Magnuski fled Poland ahead the German Nazi invasion in 1938. Working in the U.S. for Galvin Manufacturing Co. (which became Motorola), he helped produce the first “walkie talkie” (the SCR-300 shown below). As a bulky backpack, it would hardly be considered portable today. Nonetheless, it passed a final acceptance test in March of 1942 and became a game-changer on the World War II battlefield.

Post-war, returning soldiers and sailors created a huge casino gaming boom in the late 1940s that continues to this day. Table games were dominant then, but slot machines were growing in popularity as women began patronizing casinos as much as men. It didn’t take long for managers to realize that those slots worked much better with good two-way communications.

On the back wall of the early postcard image of the Nevada Club in Reno, you can slightly make out signs with numbers. Those are display boards where individual slot machine numbers lit up if a service button was pressed or a hand pay jackpot had occurred. But if a light bulb burned out or a wire broke (which was common), wait times could soar.

It wasn’t long before casinos realized that small handheld radios were the future. Not only did they vastly improve service in slots, but they quickly became mandatory for Security, Surveillance, Housekeeping, F&B, hotel staff and the special event crews.

First Motorola, and later Kenwood, ICOM, Hytera and others became key suppliers to the casino world. Their newest radios were much smaller and featured good coverage, clear sound and long-lasting batteries. While this “walkie talkie” radio technology is almost 80 years old, it is still the primary method of two-way communication in most casinos. However, it may soon become a thing of the past.

The next two-way advancement outside of casinos was the cell phone. Just three days after the end of March 1973, another historic call was made: “Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone.” Marty was Dr. Martin Cooper, who was working with Motorola. He was calling his friend Dr. Joel Engel at AT&T. That was the first call on a cellular phone.

As we all know, the mobile phone and subsequent smartphone has transformed life as we know it today. Teens and tweens consider their phones to be as essential as air, food and water. Baby boomers aren’t far behind in their use of mobile apps like Facebook, YouTube, and Google.

Cell phones on the casino floor made quite an impact, but not necessarily in two-way communications. The onboard cameras, which quickly became a phone feature, were useful in documenting disputes, accidents, and machine malfunctions.

Moving forward, today’s frenzy of sports betting and online gaming would not have accelerated as quickly without mobile apps. Likewise, for players and operators alike, the popular recordings and viewers of “slot influencers” would never have boomed without cellphones.

Operationally, several providers began offering a “push-to-talk” strategy with the cellphone replacing, or complementing, their radios. The mobile phones were certainly lighter. However, many models had limited battery life, were fragile and suffered from spotty coverage. A bigger, non-technical, issue was that casino customers mistakenly perceived that the slot attendants were “goofing off” on their phones instead of doing business. While rare, if a cell tower or an individual provider went down, the casino floor suffered (last month, on February 22, AT&T suffered an hours-long national outage that was a major disruptor for many casinos).

Two other terms in the comm world are “Bluetooth” and “Wireless”. The first is a form of very short-range transmission between devices. Historically, the name comes from a 10th-century Danish Viking king named Harald Bluetooth. Today, mice, keyboards, smart watches, ear pods, remote speakers and other small devices use Bluetooth technology.

The definition of “wireless” is a bit more complicated. Certainly, everything mentioned above is done “without wires”. These technologies all use some form of electromagnetic radio waves. However, in common usage today, “wireless” generally refers to short range (but much greater than Bluetooth) transmissions. Much like cell phones, generally wireless devices talk to one another or get relayed via beacons placed in strategic locations.

The Relay company was established in 2018, combining some resources from two earlier providers. They pair the best features of cell and wireless technology to serve the hospitality world. Wireless is their main form of communications, but they also incorporate cell technology with multiple vendors. If one provider goes down, the system automatically switches to another. Likewise, the combination of both cell and wireless virtually eliminates any dead spots on your casino floor or hotel tower.

If you are a fan of TV crime shows, you’ll note that often the good guys locate the bad guys by tracking where their cell phones are “pinging” off nearby towers. They can’t tell exactly where the suspect is, but they can narrow it to a few square blocks. Using wireless, combined with multiple inexpensive “beacons,” a Relay system can determine within a few feet where a user is transmitting from on a casino floor.

This is extremely helpful in tracking team member locations. With software that is being released this month, the Relay system can be used for documenting and analyzing mandatory “rounds” such as security patrol checkpoints and maintenance tasks. If their smart software detects a “round” has been missed, users can quickly be notified, and the issue corrected.

Likewise, this ability to identify locations can be a game changer in emergencies such as active shooter scenarios. On a computer screen (example illustrated) a dispatcher can see exactly where the problem has been reported (pink dot) and which other team members are nearby (black dots).  It is also useful in identifying employees in the “right” and/or “wrong” locations.

Combining these features with the internet, it is possible for a casino manager or supervisor to monitor or reply to casino floor transmissions from their home or locations as remote as the ICE show in London.

Unlike traditional radios, Relay’s square-shaped devices (shown) are much smaller and lighter yet have a long battery life comparable to handheld radios. They are also less expensive than either a walkie talkie or a cell phone.

While they have been shrinking, the weight and size of radios is one of the most common complaints of casino employees. It is not uncommon that the heft of the radio and battery entices slot attendants and techs to use them as hammers to loosen sticky slot doors or pound on staplers.

But perhaps the most innovative feature that Relay is previewing this March is “Team Interpreter”. It is a language translation application with 30 different selectable dialects. With this new AI software, one user speaking English can be heard by another user in Spanish and vice versa. The app has been developed completely in-house at Relay, rather than using a generic translation firm like Google or AWS. This prevents any outside use of the data.

This can be a huge benefit for an industry like casino/resorts facing critical labor shortages. They can eliminate some language requirements in a few job categories. Even bi-lingual workers may prefer to hear information in their native language to improve comprehension.

While the Relay devices have both a speaker and mic built-in, most users will opt to use a wired earpiece attached to the Relay device. Not only does this improve voice quality in a noisy casino environment, it seems to assure customers that an employee is working rather than listening to Taylor Swift via Spotify earbuds.

Relay has quickly grown to over 250,000 users in the hospitality world, and these new features coming at the end of this month will surely boost their profile.

Relay demoed their products at the WGPC security/surveillance conference last month in Las Vegas, and they will also be showing at the upcoming IGA show in Anaheim on April 10th & 11h.  Radio vendor, Hytera US, will also have a booth at IGA.