Early Adopters: Harrah's Entertainment Tests the Business Case for Surface Computing

Microsoft Surface technology helps the gaming company sell more drinks.

The Project: Develop and deploy applications for Microsoft Surface, a computer in the form of a table. Surface employs internal cameras that respond to hand gestures or physical objects placed on its 30-inch tabletop screen.

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The Business Case: Harrah's board was wowed by the system, which allows people to use their hands to touch and move objects on the screen and which recognizes objects placed on it based on their shape or a bar code. But Harrah's CIO and SVP of innovation, gaming and technology Tim Stanley (who retired in January) saw more than a flashy user interface. He envisioned new ways to generate revenue.

The decision to try Surface came from the gut, says Harrah's Vice President of Innovation Chris Chang. The goal was to "establish Surface as a platform to guests and then figure out how to make money from it." Nevertheless, the company defined how much it was willing to spend to prove the technology would create value.

First Steps: Harrah's signed on as one of five inaugural customers for Surface in 2006. Chang created a cross-functional team to brainstorm ideas for it, then five developers spent almost a year building eight applications. Among them: Flirt, which allows guests to chat with each other across a bar, and Mixologist, which enables guests to create and order custom cocktails.

Harrah's introduced Surface at the PURE nightclub in Caesar's Palace during a celebrity poker event in February 2008. Then the company installed six machines at the iBar lounge in its Rio Hotel & Casino for a 120-day pilot. Flirt was an instant hit. Mixologist, meanwhile, has proven to be a revenue generator.

During the pilot, Harrah's signed tequila-maker Patrón Spirits as a Surface sponsor. They offered a Patrón-themed bowling game, created coasters that launched a Patrón ad and handed out cards that, when placed on the Surface, offered prizes like a free margarita. Drink sales rose 15 percent as a result of the program.

Overall, Harrah's links most of the 19 percent increase in both sales and traffic at the iBar to the presence of the Surface computers. Property managers liked the devices so much that Harrah's let them remain once the pilot was over. Now Chang's team is developing new applications and plans more deployments in Las Vegas this year. The ultimate goal (assuming regulators approve): Use the Surface to deliver casino gaming.

What to Watch Out For: You need patience when deploying something untested. Surface was "extremely immature," Stanley says.

One of Surface's main attractions—its ability to recognize many points of contact simultaneously—has been Harrah's greatest pain point. "It's another whole level of complexity as opposed to single-function, single-stream transaction-based applications," says Stanley. Plus, there are currently no automated alerts or remote monitoring processes for the Surface; Harrah's depends on users alerting bartenders or wait staff if the system isn't working.

Initially, Harrah's wanted to let guests discover how to use the system on their own. But Chang found that help videos were a better idea.

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