On the Horizon: HookMotion brings video analytics to the tables

November 13, 2022 6:00 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
November 13, 2022 6:00 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

This feature is the second entry in On The Horizon, an occasional series that dives deep into innovative startups in the gaming industry. To nominate a company, write OnTheHorizon@cdcgaming.com.

An online chat involving a software developer/entrepreneur in Canada and a veteran gaming executive in New Zealand could wind up changing how North American casinos manage table games. The chat-room connection was the first meeting between Dominic Morin-Proulx, whose background includes engineering and artificial intelligence, and William F. Bonar, who has more than 35 years of experience in casino surveillance, game security, and video analytics.

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Company HookMotion
Location Montreal, Quebec; https://hookmotion.com
Product description HookMotion’s TableMotion Plus automatically tracks table games and automates a casino’s table management system without adding hardware to the gaming floor.
Founded 2019
Current # of employees 8
Elevator pitch HookMotion automatically tracks table games and their players. Its powerful computer vision software connects to pre-existing surveillance cameras to generate reports on game speed, side-bet utilization, dealer performance, player ratings, error and fraud detection, and more.

A couple of years ago, Bonar happened upon an online conversation about baccarat, analytics, and artificial intelligence. It turned out that Morin-Proulx, along with partners Matthieu Clas and Samy Zarour, were interested in using artificial-intelligence software to interpret what was happening on table games. Their initial plan was to address a costly problem all casinos share: losses from cheating and dealer mispays.

“I could see what they were trying to do, but you could also tell that they didn’t totally understand how casinos worked,” Bonar recalled.

Since then, the trio’s idea has evolved into a Montreal-based company called HookMotion, which offers a method of gathering and analyzing table game data with far more detail and accuracy than what the best pit supervisors can provide, including the amount bet on each spot per hand and player, the size of each side bet, how long a customer has played, and the total action on the main game and side bets.

From an information standpoint, such analytics have the potential to “basically turn a gaming table into a slot machine,” said Bonar, who is an advisor to HookMotion.

The company, whose name refers to the ability to capture and analyze movement, compiles those mounds of data through software that analyzes the video feed from a casino’s existing camera system. No new cameras are needed; a company-installed server does the work.

“Our computer understands the bits and pieces of the image and puts that all together to paint the complete image,” explained Clas, HookMotion’s CEO. “The goal of our software is basically a digital copy of what’s happening on a table game.”

How AI works

Artificial intelligence can encompass a variety of approaches.

“At the core, it’s software that’s capable of replicating a human process,” Clas said. That includes understanding images, as HookMotion’s software does. Other applications of AI can understand speech or grasp the meaning of text. For example. “Different pieces of technology fall under the umbrella. A lot of people think of AI as machines learning by themselves,” he said.

Bonar said machine learning is especially difficult in the constantly moving environment of a casino. Teaching the software to identify the value of individual chips, for example, requires “thousands and thousands and thousands of shots” from multiple angles and against different tabletops. “(It) is a massive challenge to any form of automation and analytics, and no one has it right at this particular point in time,” Bonar said. Analytics also can play “a really big part” in game protection by recognizing if someone alters a bet after the result is determined, if the float suddenly changes, or if one betting spot wins constantly, he said.

“It’s a massive opportunity for a young company, but it takes a lot of R&D, a lot of time and money,” Bonar said. HookMotion’s concept is to “start at the beginning with the equipment you have,” and analyze dealer productivity, player turnover, side bets, and other basic data.

“And then you grow.”

Traditional and online casinos are embracing the use of artificial intelligence for marketing, slot-machine selection and layout, security, and other applications. Bonar said U.S. casinos have lagged behind large Asian casinos in the use of video analytics, but are catching up.

“A fresh view of the world”

HookMotion, founded in 2019, is relatively new to the industry, but Bonar sees that as a positive.

“HookMotion’s advantage is that they’re not casino people,” Bonar said. “They haven’t come in with all that baggage (of) ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ They come in with a fresh view of the world.” He said video technology from larger older companies requires casinos to buy and install additional cameras and other equipment, while also forcing changes in various procedures, including how games are dealt. In contrast, he said, HookMotion’s AI works with the existing surveillance system and “value adds straightaway.

“The industry will never change internally,” Bonar said. “People who come from the outside and (ask), ‘Why don’t you think about doing something different?’ or ‘Are you using technology?’ That’s what will change the industry.”

Clas said the company’s software tracks each “event,” such as a bet being placed or a card being dealt, and transmits the information to the server. “We have a log of everything that happened,” he said.

Casinos can use the data in three areas:

  • Operations, including statistics about game speed, player turnover, use of side bets, and other indicators of game productivity
  • Player marketing, including calculating player-reward points based on individual data, including amount bet, hands played, and length of session. That also frees pit workers from having to track play.
  • Game security, including prevention and detection of fraud and errors

“There are a lot of things that we aren’t doing yet that we’re going to be able to do,” Clas added. “To us, the first step is to collect data on these table games. As we’re doing that, we can figure out new ways of using that data.”

Casinos typically rely on pit supervisors to monitor players for average bet and time played. They’re responsible for multiple tables, while also handling dealer questions, tray fills, and a host of other responsibilities. That means comps awarded to table-game players are often little more than an educated guess.

“What we see is that most casinos overcomp their players on average and comp the wrong people,” Clas said. “They’re not encouraging the right people to come in.” The errors can add up to $200,000 a year per table, he said. “Because data has to be tracked by hand, seeing trends takes a lot of time and something we want to do is be able to actually make a change in the casino. Those are new elements that we’re bringing in with the data. We want to make sure that it’s precise, that you can count on it, and that we get it to you faster.”

The starting focus

HookMotion currently focuses on blackjack, the most popular table game in U.S. casinos, and baccarat, the most popular in Asia. The software works “almost straight out of the box” on proprietary or carnival games that function much like blackjack, Clas said, but adapting it for craps and roulette will require additional work.

Bonar said video analysis of table games is a vital tool for casinos to increase revenue. He cited a Macau casino where video analytics proved that wagering on side bets increased when the wagering spot was closer to the player. The increase was large enough that the casino changed all of its table layouts.

HookMotion has placements in Mexico and Canada and the company’s next move is getting a foothold in the U.S. market. As the number of installations grows, the AI software can get smarter, adapting to different lighting schemes, table layouts, and chip colors.

HookMotion hopes to trigger change in casinos. Clas called table games “a dark corner,” where casinos have “very little information about what really is going on. What interests us is how we can get as much information as possible, so casinos can basically optimize themselves,” he said. “How can we make the space a better place, how can we make players happier coming to our establishments, how can we provide better service?

“Table games are still very much a game between people. We started with that, but down the line, we really see ourselves as a data company for casinos.”

Previous entries in the On the Horizon series: