Makers of touch-screen products creating advancements aimed at enhancing the slot gaming experience

Imagine feeling a rumble or click when you put your finger to a touch screen on a slot machine. Or picture a real 3D image underneath a touch screen - without having to wear goofy glasses. How about an ad for tonight's Tim McGraw concert suddenly appearing on the screen of an idle slot machine?

The touch screen - now entering its wild and rambunctious teen-age phase-is starting to adopt gee-whiz features that could radically transform slot play into a far more interactive and sensory experience.

"The potential is really staggering," said Christa Meyers, vice president of Las Vegas Gaming Inc., whose AdVision product enables touch screens on idle slot machines to advertise activities throughout the casino.

Among the companies forging a path into the future is 3M Touch Systems. The company's MicroTouch Capacitive TouchSense (MCT) System makes virtual onscreen buttons feel real. The product, showcased at the 2006 Global Gaming Expo, uses tactile feedback technology called "TouchSense" from a Silicon Valley company called Immersion Corp.

The MCT System can draw from a library of about four dozen sensations. Slot players who press a finger to a touch screen might feel as if they're depressing a dome button, or feel a double click, rumble or buzz. Audio and visual effects used in combination with the tactile element help create multisensory experiences.

"We think this is a pretty dramatic technology shift," said Scott Hagermoser, 3M Touch Systems' gaming business manager. "Currently, with a touch screen, it's a flat experience. Your finger touches the glass and the game spins or whatever is supposed to happen. You don't really get any feedback.

"What the MicroTouch Capacitive TouchSense System brings to the equation," Hagermoser continued, "is another added dimension. You can now feel different sensations on your finger." The tactile feedback "gives you that positive feedback that you did something, but it also has the ability to increase the excitement."

The tactile sensation is built into the software, which means that the desired feedback - whether it's a shake, rattle or roll -- can be easily swapped out, screen by screen, game by game. That's a big advantage for operators who may be changing games on a regular basis, Hagermoser noted.

Hagermoser expects attendees at this fall's G2E will be able to check out the MicroTouch Capacitive TouchSense System at various manufacturers' booths. He said 3M is working with a number of manufacturers but noted it would be premature to identify them. As to whether the technology will add considerably to the cost of a machine, Hagermoser said it is "not too expensive for what it does to the interaction of the game."

"We think it provides significant value that will keep players playing a game for a longer period of time and bring more enjoyment to the player," Hagermoser said.

Chuck Hickey, director of slot operations at Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino, said sensory experiences such as TouchSense are harmless fun but questions how much they will add to the playability of the game or whether they will make a player stay on the game longer.

Jay Fennel, corporate director of slot operations for Station Casinos, also is skeptical about whether such features will bring any more money to the bottom line. And he added that the old-style push button isn't likely to go away any time soon. Many players prefer the push button over a touch screen for certain activities, he said.

However, Steven Abramovich, vice president of sales and marketing for Elo TouchSystems, said touch screens are better at engaging a player than mechanical buttons. "It gives a more interactive feel to the game," Abramovich said.

Elo recently introduced a touch-screen product with a palm-rejection capability. A video poker player, for example, could cup his palm around his cards to hide them without triggering an action.

While companies such as 3M are helping slot machines get touchy-feely, engineers at a Northern California company have been building 3D technology to give slot players an exciting new experience for the eyes.

PureDepth, Inc.'s 3D technology uses two physical planes rather than visual tricks that fool the brain into thinking it's looking at something in three dimensions, said company spokesman Garth Chouteau. "It's not just the perception of depth, but real depth," he said.

For example, the front plane on a slot machine might display a typical row of cherries, oranges, lemons and bells. An image of mechanical wheels would be on a rear, recessed plane. While the images would be created by digitized computer graphics, the effect would mimic an old-fashioned mechanical slot machine, Chouteau said.

Chouteau said that PureDepth technology offers the slot player a visceral experience that is missing in video slot machines. He said that many slot players are nostalgic for the buttons and levers on mechanical machines. Moreover, PureDepth's 3D technology doesn't require glasses or use visual tricks that cause eye strain over a prolonged period, he added.

PureDepth, which also makes 3D technology for military applications, recently signed a deal handing IGT worldwide licensing rights for PureDepth technology in wager-based gaming, outside of Japan. Randy Hedrick, senior vice president of IGT Labs, said in a recent press release that 3D technology for slots "represents the future of casino-style gaming."

But don't expect to see PureDepth's 3D technology on IGT games anytime soon, cautioned IGT spokesman Ed Rogich. That won't happen until server-based gaming debuts, and "we're years away from that becoming a reality."

IGT demonstrated PureDepth privately at last fall's G2E, and the reaction was "very good," Rogich said. IGT expects to show an updated PureDepth/IGT product at this year's event, he added.

In Asia, PureDepth is working with Sanyo to bring 3D technology to pachinko and pachislot parlors, Chouteau said.

While PureDepth's technology isn't quite ready for prime time in gaming, a small Las Vegas company is further along with a suite of products that use touch-screen technology to increase play and profits in some interesting ways.

Las Vegas Gaming Inc.'s PortalVision makes it possible for idle slot machines to advertise events and activities throughout the casino. Say a concert is letting out that night at midnight and the casino wants to drum up business at a new restaurant. As concertgoers spill out of the auditorium, an ad for the restaurant could appear on idle slot machines. When a player touched the screen, the resident game would reappear.

PortalVision also can prompt players on ticket-in ticket-out machines to purchase lottery or keno tickets before they cash out, or bet on upcoming sports events - without leaving the machine. Casinos so inclined could let players watch a live sporting event on part of the screen, explained Christa Myers, Las Vegas Gaming Inc.'s vice president of marketing.

Myers explained that one of the niftiest features of PortalVision is the ability to promote or advertise specific events at a moment's notice. Say a big party cancels a Saturday-night reservation at a new restaurant that's the talk of the town. With the touch of a button, idle slot machines could display the sudden availability of tables.

Myers said the possibilities are endless for putting promotional content on idle slot machines: photos of the latest jackpot winner, an advertisement for a last-minute slot tourney, or a security message in the event of a catastrophe, for instance.

PortalVision works on any machine with a video touch screen and ticket printer. The technology is ready; all that remains is regulatory approval and installation. Myers said Treasure Island is beta-testing the advertising component of PortalVision, called AdVision. Other components are following on AdVision's heels. Products will be available far in advance of server-based gaming, she added.

"I was at a panel at G2E on real-time marketing at the slots," Myers said. "Questions were being asked about downloadable gaming. 'When is it coming? When is it coming?'

"It came time for me to speak, and I looked out at these 200 and change people and I said, 'That's all very interesting. But here's what we can do now.'"

The casino industry isn't entirely sold on all these marketing devices, interactive elements and bells and whistles.

Charlie Lombardo, a consultant to the Seminole Hard Rock hotel-casinos in Florida, said that the generation of young people who'll be the casino gambler of the future appears more interested in old-style table games with real dealers. Even if manufacturers come up with interactive games that appeal to them, those games may simply take too long to play and consequently not be a moneymaking proposition for the house, Lombardo added.

That presents a major challenge for slot operators and developers.

"We're really going to have to get creative and innovative before we can bring the next generation along," he said.