By John Scott Lewinski
The Aria Resort and Casino, within MGM’s new City Center complex on the Las Vegas Strip, may be the most technologically advanced hotel ever built. Its mix of gadgets and cutting-edge networks blends centralized convenience with personalized luxury (and even a squeeze of energy-saving sophistication) to offer a glimpse of what all hotels could look like in the future.
The Aria opened on Dec. 16 last year, marketing itself as a high-tech alternative to Vegas’s more traditional resorts, with a data and communication system driven by 283 individual telecom rooms and a broadband antennae network covering 140 million square feet. And while the technology brings many high-tech luxuries to visitors—omnipresent wireless connectivity, 3D monitors and smart touchscreen interfaces—it also crosses into potential Big Brother territory (even by Vegas standards). Here is a close look at some of Aria’s biggest technological advances and the issues they raise.
The Autonomous Smart Room
Aria technicians ran primary and redundant fiberoptic networks to each of the hotel’s 4004 guest rooms, allowing for extensive in-room automation. When a guest enters a room, curtains automatically open, music plays, the TV activates and climate controls bring the room to a preset temperature.
If a guest leaves, the lights go out, curtains close, the TV and music shut off, and the temperature reverts to a preset, personalized setting. All room features (including the “Do Not Disturb” sign) can be manipulated with a Control 4 touchscreen room-automation remote control, or directly through the room’s HDTV. A forthcoming iPad app will also allow the tablet to double as a room remote.
Since guests register with the Aria’s data system, the hotel can store all room setting information indefinitely. If a guest returns a year later, their room can be prepped with the same lighting, entertainment and climate settings as during their previous stay.
Other elite hotels offer such advanced automation, but the Aria is the first to run the service to every room. On one level, it’s a gimmick. You can always get up to close the curtains or turn off a light. But, the real advance is still to come—hotel technicians are working on systems that would allows guests to control their room settings from across town through their cellphones. This could result in energy savings by allowing guests to turn off their a/c-saving energy usage as they could turn off their a/c when they leave—and turn it back on before they return to their rooms.
Once a guest’s smartphone is registered with the Aria, hotel attractions could push personalized notifications to the user. All the guest has to do is hit a button, and the agreement will be akin to a signature. And since the Aria is able to track cellphones while on resort grounds, the hotel will easily be able to send guests special features and offers depending on who they are and where they are standing at any given moment. Are you a known blackjack player? The resort can let you know about empty player chairs at the $25 tables. Like buffets and standing near the dining area? They can send you a digital coupon for $2 off your brunch.
The House Always Wins
Players will find slots, video poker and the other gambling standards throughout the Aria (after all, this is Vegas). But these aren’t just any gambling stations—they have updatable, changeable games controlled and monitored by the Aria’s 3000-square-foot data center. The stations, which have hi-def screens that are each run by a Mac Mini, give the house stats on which games are the most popular, allowing the control room to change them accordingly. One-dollar slots not doing well? Change them to a quarter. Video Poker beating out slots? Turn slot machines into poker machines with a keystroke.
Flexible gambling tech will be essential to other massive Vegas casinos in the future. Gambling is no longer the primary revenue producer in Sin City, with big-budget shows, spas and restaurants now eclipsing the gaming floor.
Visitors with a limited vacation budget want something for their money—like the memory of a special event or a lavish meal, and not a pile of vanishing quarters at the video-poker machine. When these risk-averse tourists gamble, they tend to weigh their chances and select their games more carefully. So, giving a casino the opportunity to create a more popular gambling machine should allow them to increase revenue.
Smartphone Key Cards
Over the next two years, biometric smartphones will drive further features at the Aria and other tech-forward hotels. “We want to get to the point where we can encode your cellphone so you can use it as your credit card, you room key and your Player’s Club card,” says John Bollen, CityCenter’s vice president of technology. “Guests would open their door or pay for a product or service with a specially developed app.” According to Bollen, an Aria app should also work at other MGM properties in Vegas.
And since every inch of the Aria is covered by what the hotel calls a “heat-sensitive” Wi-Fi network, phones are less likely to find themselves in dead spots. That heat-sensitive technology reads the density of activity on the network, and adds Wi-Fi muscle to parts of the grid that require more bandwidth.
While using a smartphone as a keycard or credit card certainly sounds appealing, it has obvious security risks, and it could prove difficult for customers to get comfortable with the idea. Hotels like the Aria will have to install multiple levels of encryption and data protection to prevent fraud and privacy violations.
Watching What You Eat
All dining facilities feature digital menus on the casino floor, at every gaming station and in the restaurants themselves. The Aria’s data-hub tracks how many people access the menus, what they access, when they access and what they order. The hotel’s food mavens can calculate how many people read the menu compared to how many eat in the restaurant, track what items are selling, and easily adjust menu selections and prices on the fly.
So far, hotel statistics indicate patrons who scroll through an entire menu tend to move on to something else. Those who stop halfway, though, often get a table.
In the recent past, it would have taken weeks of record keeping and analysis for chefs and restaurant managers to deduce what their top earners were. Now, the real-time, data-linked menus can immediately read trends from the dinner table and analyze it with a quick and easy cost–benefit table. This could be a problem for guests who enjoy less popular fringe items, which could be pushed off the menu.
Who’s Watching You?
The Aria’s Honeywell camera surveillance system—and those like it at other hotels—could eventually be used for more than security monitoring. The cameras can use facial recognition software to tell who’s coming and going, and to home in on VIPs to whisk them to the front of a line or shower them with special treatment.
But there are perks to Big Brother watching you—if you’re a VIP, that is. For example, if a guest has a Player’s Club Card, and his or her face is ID’d (or a smartphone detected), there’ll be no need to stand in line at the club. A concierge will scan for the right faces and phones before escorting those chosen people in ahead of the crowd.
When you combine such cameras with the smartphone network, no one—especially frequent guests—will be able to move around the property with anonymity. And for frequent guests, the hotel might know an uncomfortable amount of personal information—from what they eat, to what TV stations they watch.