Bryan Kelly, vice president of technology for Bally Technologies, manages Bally’s Innovation Lab. The lab, based in Pleasanton, Calif., focuses on the research and development of new gaming technologies, features, and products and helps accelerate the commercial deployment of cutting-edge games and systems technologies for what Bally calls The Networked Floor of the Future. In an interview with Casino Journal Editor Marian Green, Kelly talks about Bally’s efforts to synergize development efforts from Bally’s R&D team, which has tripled in size in less than three years.
What exactly is the Innovation Lab and why it was formed?
Kelly: What our mission statement is basically is to foster and promote Bally’s long-term strategy by researching, incubating and developing strategic new technologies, features and products that can become commercially viable. You look at most existing product groups today in the company, and in most companies, and they’re worried more about the short-term, zero to maybe 18 month out, time range. This group’s responsibility is to look a little further out, to see that our shorter-term vision maps to our longer-term technological and business strategy. We used to be called Bally Systems and Games, and we changed our name to be Bally Technologies because we’d rather be thought of as a technology company and not just a games and systems company. But there still are two primary groups in our company, our systems and our games business. And as you go into the server-based gaming world, the convergence between those two starts to happen, and you need some group to think about what is the migration strategy between the two groups - how do they interrelate better? How do you go from thick client to thin client?
Has that become more important now? Why is the timing right now?
Well, when you go from a small company to a mid-size company, you have to start putting that organizational structure together for that larger company to work with. And you typically have a corporate R&D department that when you move into a mid-size to large-size company that spans all business units, and then you have the regular product groups. We have multiple advanced product development groups. What this does is try to align each of those different groups’ vision and strategy into the corporate vision and strategy and think more long term out than next quarter or next six months.
What kind of advantage does it give you to be out in Pleasanton, Calif?
Pleasanton in particular has the advantage of being very close to the Silicon Valley, so we can draw upon the Silicon Valley talent. We have a lot more visibility to the technology that’s coming out of the Silicon Valley, from networking to games to security to media to advertising, all the things that are making their way into the casino space. So being in the heart of the Silicon Valley and San Francisco meets Multimedia Gulch is pretty helpful to us. We realize we can’t draw all the talent in the world in Reno and Vegas. As we start bringing these new Internet or new system-based technologies into the casino space … we need to be close to that world, and that world, a lot of it, is based in the Bay Area.
What are some of those emerging and new technologies that you are keeping your eyes on right now?
How do you start merging a very thick client gaming experience to a more personalized gaming experience? Right now, the games don’t know anything about you so when you put your card in, the base game has no idea who you are. And that’s changing so now you can start doing new user experiences, customized experiences. You know you go to Yahoo and you get your Yahoo page, your experience. So it’s really how do you make that [gaming experience] a personal experience is some of the stuff we’re looking at. Obviously we’re looking at new hardware that’s required, how you plumb the floor of the future, the networked floor of the future. Really there are a lot of different things we look at from technology, basically spanning from the game mechanic user interface, design, skill-based gaming, then you start moving up into hardware that’s inside the gaming cabinet and peripherals…How are those type of things going to affect the gaming industry and lab initiatives under way on those things so we can improve the customer experience.
Are you going to be looking at how you get customers from Point A to Point B, allowing customers to sort of choose their own path?
Yeah, one of the big things we pride ourselves on at Bally is to support our customers who have made an investment in our technologies and we don’t obsolete them. We give them a migration strategy. They want to see that we have the long-term roadmap and how we’re going to take them from Point A to Point D and that they don’t have to do it all in one shot, that there’s a path for them to take.
Who participates in the innovation lab?
We’re building the group still, so it’s a work in progress. We have team members in India, which we will be doing a lot of our development out of India. There will be people from content areas, which includes artists and game people. We have hardware engineers; we have network engineers; we have system-level programmers. We have product and project management people; we have support from the business development group, the group that is going out and looking at third-party businesses and third-party technologies. We have the ability to assess those technologies, and those technologies could come anywhere in the network all the way down to the peripheral all the way back to server-side technologies s or entities that today don’t even exist in the casino space. A lot of different people come at us and we have to be able to properly vett those ideas, assess the technology, assess the IP portfolio and figure out what to do with it. Right now when third parties come to the company, typically those get thrown to the individual business units, and those business units are up to their necks with work. They’re trying to deliver customers products and solutions that the customers have requested and it’s tough for them to take their eye off the ball and go think about this other thing, whereas with this group, that’s one of its primary responsibilities is to look outside and find the stuff and make the business case with the business dev team and make the case to bring it in to the company. This is a group that specifically targets the strategic stuff versus the tactical stuff that our existing product developments generally focus on.
What about third-party development? Do you see that becoming a bigger part of the landscape these days?
I think so. When you start getting into this casino floor of the future, where you have windows on gaming devices -IGT has the service window; we call ours display manager - that you can bring in content from various sources. Really in the end, the casinos are going to be wanting to choose the best of breed application for those. They’d like to maybe have a Bally bonusing product and maybe buy some competitor’s bonusing solution, buy someone else’s advertisement solution and someone else’s banking solution, whatever it may be. This concept of openness, and how you get to it and how you architect so you have that flexibility, is really important. That is a keen interest right now - how we provide that flexibility to provide third party capability in our system, both on the client side as well as on the server side.
What excites you about this project and about the lab itself?
I think it’s going to go a long way to getting an efficient process in Bally to properly vet ideas. You can’t believe how many inventive ideas that are coming up both through the existing product groups as well as the innovation lab as well as from third parties. Frankly giving them due consideration has been a difficult thing. Getting that infrastructure in place I think is really important for both our internal developers as well as for the third parties that they know their idea will be properly vetted and thought through as to how it fits into our bigger strategy. I’m really excited that we’re building a formality to how we deal with these innovations that come from within the company and outside the company and be able to look at what is the next paradigm. One of the things that keeps me awake at night is how do I make sure that disruptive technology is not going to come along and decapitate us. My job is to make sure we’re the ones to find that disruptive technology, and if we don’t do it our competitors will, so we will actively seek out disruptive technology and try to properly insert it into our product roadmap.
When you’re trying to find out what those things are going to be and they’re outside the gaming space, what are some of the things that you do to stay abreast of what’s going on out in the world?
I call it hunt the Earth. We’ll scour the Earth, and I’m not going to tell you how we do it, but we will scour the earth for technology. And sometimes you can find things that are successful in other businesses in other markets and bring those right on into our market, because they’ve already proven themselves out in those other markets and there’s a decent chance they’ll working our marketplace too so we’ll look for those as well. But we’ll also look for things that … you might not see in the world on a consumer product for two, three, four years. We’ll keep abreast of those things. And we’ll say in two, three, four years that might be part of our hardware strategy, or that widget might be used in our gaming cabinet, or our gaming client or somewhere in our gaming network. And we need to plot out how does that new paradigm shift our technology, how does it migrate and how does it affect our current product. Which is nontrivial because you’ve got existing products and existing customers and they want to be fully supported with what they’ve bought and what they’re going to buy and sometimes this technology’s disruptive. And you want to give them a comfort, a migration path.
Are you going to be working with operator ideas as well?
We also will be working closely with the various casinos. These casinos, many of them, are very cutting edge. They get the big picture where the market is going. They’re very innovative themselves. They want to experiment. We have a close working relationship with many of these customers, and we’ll do mutual brainstorming sessions and take some of these ideas to field trial. And once it passes the smell test at field trial and focus groups and other things, then we’ll pass it on the product group to productize and actually start selling to customers. We will have a close relationship with many of our customers.