Slot cabinets might not be the sleekest project for high-end industrial designers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bring the same depth of creative commitment to them that they would, say, to a commission from Samsung or Sony. Especially if the client is the right fit, culturally speaking. And the end result can still be an unqualified artistic success.

That was among the takeaways from “Industrial Design on the Casino Floor,” a presentation by Dan Harden, CEO of Whipsaw, at the AGS GameON user conference held at Pechanga Resort & Casino in June. Whipsaw has designed cabinets for IGT (G23) and Aristocrat (the Arc) and hooked up with Cadillac Jack before the company was acquired by AGS, for whom it has designed the ICON and Orion cabinets respectively. The relationship, now in its seventh year, has been and continues to be satisfying.

“We don’t necessarily want to work with all the giant companies, we want to work with companies that are ready to innovate, and innovation is in their blood,” said Harden. “We sensed that with Cadillac Jack, so we designed the ICON first, and that was well-received. And then with Orion, we all had a collective vision, Whipsaw and AGS, of what it became.”

 

AGS ICON line of slots
Whipsaw helped AGS come up with the design for its successful ICON line of slot machines.

 

THE BASIC GOALS

Harden founded his company 18 years ago. Employing, “about 43 people or so,” Whipsaw works with companies ranging from start-ups to Fortune 50 outfits. Whipsaw designs products and experiences for clients Bosch, Brita, Cisco, Dell, Ford, GE, Haier, Intel, Leitz, Merck, Motorola, Nike, Olympus, Samsung, Sony and TP-Link plus many startups.

“Industrial designers are kind of a cross between artists and engineers,” he said. “We have to have deep imagination and at the same time have our feet on the ground so we can manufacture these products at a reasonable cost. So it’s an interesting balance—hence the name Whipsaw, a long two-man saw with a handle on each side. Each time we design something we ask, ‘What is the context; what do people want and expect and how can we pull them into this brand story?’ In the case of AGS, what we try to do is create the most interesting, engaging, beautiful, comfortable, delightful, emotional experience possible on the casino floor. With a cabinet, when you walk past it, you are tempted, even at a subconscious level, to sit down and play.”

With Orion, Whipsaw and AGS agreed that the lighting was going to be key. “How can we keep people at that chair?” asked Harden. “How can we reduce the fatigue? Because there is fatigue. People are hitting their knees on upright cabinets. They can’t get comfortable. Where do you put your purse? Your cigarette? How can I reach out and touch the screen?

“This is where most design directors start; context and research. What are the possibilities of the technology? More important, where are the human-centered problems and pain points that we, as designers working closely with our client, can really address?” 

A well-designed cabinet can help add time-on-device (or not). “You want to engage the senses; sights and sounds are the obvious ones,” said Harden. “The other senses are touch, comfort and just general feel. You need to mitigate any pain or build-up from fatigue. It’s kind of like preventing negativity and supporting positivity. That’s just the science of human factors; getting your feet at the right angle, making sure the seat height, the keyboard height and the display angles are just right in order to prevent a lot of motion. When you can reduce fatigue, you will buy more time. We’ve done a lot of studies putting people in chairs and cabinets that are intentionally poorly designed and test how long they can stay there versus an optimal design, and you can more than double the amount of time in that chair if you just get your human factors right. When you think back to slot machines 20 years ago, the human factors were terrible. People were leaning up against the coin tray; you could always tell who the long-term-gamers were… they had bruises on their shins.”

 

AGS’ Orion cabinet
Extending the screen down to the button panel and extensive use of LEDs helps AGS’ Orion cabinet stand out on the slot floor.

 

Similarly, Harden said so many answers to what you see with the Orion cabinet came from really keen observations about what’s happening on the gaming floor. “All the way down to strange behaviors like people rubbing or kissing the machines for luck. What do you do with that as a designer?” 

LEVERAGING THE POWER OF LED

One thing Harden and Whipsaw really enjoyed about the Orion project was the lightbulb moment that was achieved by taking a 42-inch monitor and making it look larger by extending it all the way down through the keyboard area and around and back up. 

“When we saw this we said, ‘Wow, that’s interaction;’ forget all that game surface that I have,” said Harden. “It also presented the opportunity to be more architectural, the strong lines, and the verticality of the cabinet, contrasted with this array of dot-matrix lighting. LED suddenly became the driving force behind this design. The opportunity to use animation gave us a chance to really be expressive, and in this industry, it’s good to be expressive. Light and animation are good. Form is good, the materials, like dynamic chrome. The way that we positioned the chrome 90 degrees from the LED has allowed us to double the amount of lights for free, because it’s basically a reflection. You stand in front of the Orion and the lights continue to emit in and underneath the display. It fools your mind; it’s just an illusion. Another benefit is you can’t see the depth of the display anymore. It is, after all, about the game. When that individual sits down to play, the game play has to be communicated in a way that’s honest, communicative and compelling.” 

Harden acknowledges that it’s hard in this industry to create something where you look at it and you say, “That could be in the Museum of Modern Art.” Those designs tends to be functional, yet subtle, but, “this is not a subtle industry.” So how do you present subtlety and sophistication while at the same time creating some deeper psychological pull with a “wow” factor for gamers who want to be entertained? 

“I think Orion succeeded on many of those fronts,” said Harden. “Even going right down to the candle; the care and attention that AGS puts into its machines is extraordinary. Before in gaming we were told, no, you can’t touch the candle. They’re these ugly little things you buy from a third party. But these are custom-made. You can see how the shape matches up; it’s the coolest candle in the industry. There’s also a crater around each LED, to amplify the light. Again, making an overall contribution of engagement. Every detail makes a micro contribution to the macro statement.” 

CHANGE IS ALWAYS AROUND THE CORNER

With the creative process and end result described, a slot manager in the audience asked the following question: 

As casino operators, we’re torn between everyone coming out with a new cabinet, embracing advancement and innovation, but at the same time getting the most we can out of the asset we have. If this is the pinnacle of design, what do you do to keep that innovation going, assuming AGS is going to come out with another cabinet that’s not just iterative in three to five years?

“We have many what I call ‘informants,’” Harden replied. “And what I mean by that is what inspires us, what is inspiring your guests, how their lives are changing, what’s happening in society, what’s happening with technology and how we can take all those influences and trends and integrate them in the future. For example, lighting was, I would say, underutilized five years ago, as were curved screens. Now curved displays are coming down in price. You need to stay ahead in so many different areas. 

“The area that I think most influences us is behavior and the end-user’s perception of what gaming is all about. I’m seeing games being appreciated not just as way to go in and earn money but as a form of entertainment. Of course I’m going to lose sometimes but I don’t expect that after getting this theme ride they’re going to give me money. We try to make things as enjoyable as possible. That kind of thinking leads to better design; where the displays and sounds are bigger and richer, the chairs are more comfortable and it’s going to be easier for the machines to receive your money. How we pay and how we receive credits is changing. We’re trying to respond as an industrial design partner to what’s going on with the games.” 

“In every industry you think you’ve reached the pinnacle and in that moment indeed you have,” Harden added. “But then when it’s out there for two, three or four years, it’s like, ‘you know, it could be even better.’ That’s what we do. We have to be fortune tellers.”