Hollywood has long been a pioneer when it comes to exploring the future of technology. We saw the Terminator assess threats by scanning his surroundings, Robocop identify villains by running an image through a police database, and Captain Kirk access confidential data via a retinal scan.
But this type of technology isn’t the stuff of science fiction any longer.
Thanks to readily accessible facial recognition software, we all can unlock our smartphones and tag friends on social media. And it doesn’t end there. Airports, retail stores, and even ATMs are using this technology to scour the facial features of visitors in hopes of weeding out criminals. It’s the same reason security-conscious gaming execs are investigating the viability of implementing facial recognition in their casinos.
“It’s like picking out the bad guy,” says Wenrong Wang, ’15 BS Gaming Management. “If you have a crowd of 200 people, the technology should be able to point out who shouldn’t be there.”
Now a graduate student in the Hospitality College, Wang participated in a recent research project focused on using facial recognition technology in the casino space. In spring 2019, Wang and three UNLV criminal justice undergraduate students set out to examine both the merits and challenges of employing facial recognition software in the casino environment. The interdisciplinary project was facilitated by Tamara Herold, a UNLV criminal justice professor who happens to be an expert in crowd dynamics.
“Interdisciplinary studies are unique because each person brings their own perspectives,” said Herold, who recruited Wang to lead the group because of his experience and knowledge in the gaming sphere. “Combining disciplines enhances the knowledge and might even change the direction of research.”
Under Herold’s guidance, the group combed through literature, visited a Strip property, watched industry-related videos, and spoke with casino professionals. As the information-gathering process progressed, the team came to recognize the technical difficulties associated with launching a facial recognition program in casinos. Plaguing the process, generally, are such challenges as size (casino floors are sprawling, high-traffic areas); dynamic lighting (casinos often contain flashing lights); and image-capture limitations (individuals passing through common areas are rarely static long enough to adequately capture).
Wang says one guest speaker, a security director for a local casino, told the research group that his property had to abandon facial recognition software years ago because it wasn’t producing consistent results. “The overall purpose of the technology is to reduce security’s workload, but if it’s not accurate or working as it should, then it can actually do the opposite,” Wang said. “Older properties often suffer because they weren’t constructed with this technology in mind. It’s also expensive to maintain the database and purchase high-quality cameras.”
As they got deeper into their research and closer to writing their final paper, Wang and his colleagues discovered that security isn’t the only factor driving the use of facial recognition software in casinos. In New Zealand, for example, casino operators are testing facial recognition as a tool to identify problem gamblers for intervention purposes; other organizations are examining using the technology to flag high rollers and VIP guests so that premium services can be activated.
Of course, as Wang pointed out, these practices can raise serious ethical questions. “There’s a fine line between increasing guest safety and invading one’s privacy,” he said. “The technology can prevent problem gamblers from playing, but is that the casino’s responsibility? And what if a VIP guest doesn’t want extra attention? Are you invading their privacy by identifying them through the software?”
Casinos will have to grapple with these types of questions as facial recognition programs improve and costs come down. And when that time comes, Wang, who already works for a major Strip property, may very well be sitting at the table helping to determine how the technology will figure into the hospitality industry’s future.