Wearable Tech: Casinos Adapt to a Brave New World


Everyone is saying it: 2014 is the year of wearable technology. Long a niche industry with limited applications, wearable tech is now a part of our daily fitness lives, and Google Glass promises to bring a world of information to our eyeballs. Yet more wearable tech projects have fantastic potential, such as the possibility of taking users to virtual worlds.

As you may know, these technologies have had an impact in the world of gambling, as casinos have quickly moved to craft policies on how they’ll handle wearable computers. But you might not be aware that the wearable technology craze had its start in gambling as well – perhaps decades earlier than you would have guessed.

Edward Thorp Beats the Dealer

Before there were thousands of websites and dozens of systems devoted to card counting and other ways to beat blackjack, there was one man who truly understood the game: Edward Thorp. In the 1960s, Thorp authored Beat the Dealer, the first book that provided a mathematically proven method of card counting that would give players an edge over the casino.

That was a monumental moment in the history of gambling, but it’s not the one we’re here to discuss today. Around the same time as he was breaking down the game of blackjack, Thorp – a professor of mathematics at MIT – was also working with Claude Shannon, the man who laid the foundations of modern information theory.

Predicting the Wheel

Together, Thorp and Shannon developed a wearable computer that could be used to predict where a roulette ball would land. The idea was first conceived in 1955, when Thorp began to consider how to beat roulette, but no longer felt that looking for biased wheels would be generally viable. Instead, he considered how he might be able to measure the position and velocity of the roulette ball in motion, thereby predicting what pocket the ball might land in.

Eventually, the pair created a computer that was about the size of a pack of cigarettes and used their toes to input data. The computer didn’t give the pair an exact number to bet on, but instead used tones to signal what portion of the wheel the ball was likely to land on.

Ultimately, the first wearable computer was operational by June 1961. The scheme worked, though Thorp and Shannon had enough technical problems (mostly with broken speaker wires) that they could not make a serious effort to fully exploit their advantage. Still, it was clear that the computer had worked brilliantly: later groups would report advantages of about 44 percent over the casino using such a device, while Thorp himself found he could beat the “money wheel” style games in casinos with an obscenely high 200 percent edge, though that was quickly noticed by casinos.

In 1985, Nevada, seeing the problems developing due to the increasingly widespread use of such devices, passed a law that banned the use or possession of devices used to predict the outcomes of casino games.

Wearing Your Computer Outside the Casino

While wearable technology may have had its genesis in an attempt to beat casinos at their own game, it was only a matter of time before more practical applications were found. Perhaps the first piece of wearable tech that was marketed to the public was the Pulsar wristwatch, a wrist calculator that was released in 1975 and immediately captured imaginations around the world. Even President Gerald Ford was reportedly interested in the product, though he would claim his “interest” in the nearly $4,000 limited edition version was just a family joke.

Other products changed the world in ways that still benefit society today. While they might not immediately come to mind when you think of wearable tech, there’s no doubt that digital hearing aids – first released in 1987 – have helped numerous people enjoy a higher quality of life. Sure, back then they were unpopular due to their size and technological limitations, but over time these hearing devices became smaller and more efficient, and few look twice when they see such devices today.

Mann’s “Mobile” Computers

Another important innovator in the history of wearable computers was Steve Mann. In 1981, while still a high school student, Mann wired a 6502 computer into a backpack to aid in the control of various photographic systems.

Over the years, Mann’s wearable computer would get smaller and more portable as technological advances continued to be made. By 1994, Mann had developed a “Wearable Wireless Webcam” that allowed him to transmit images to the Internet from a head-mounted analog camera in real time.

Wearable Tech Goes Mainstream

Soon after the dawn of the 21st century, wearable tech had become a part of everyday life for large numbers of people. In 2000, Bluetooth shipped their first wearable headsets, leading millions to wonder “what’s that weird thing on that businessman’s ear?” And while wearable pacemakers had been around for decades, 2003 marked the released of the Vitatron C-series, the first fully digital pacemaker.

The world of fitness soon became a major part of the wearable tech revolution. In 2006, Nike and Apple combined to create the Nike+iPod, which allowed iPods to respond in real time to a user’s workout. In 2007, the Fitbit was released and allowed users to monitor their walking, sleeping, and more.

The Cutting Edge

While certain forms of wearable tech may now be ubiquitous, there are still new devices being developed every year that stretch what this emerging technology can do. The most notable example, of course, is Google Glass, a wearable computer that attaches to a pair of eyeglass frames, allowing the wearer to see information in a hands-free format.

The number of features available through Google Glass is astounding – and to some people, scary. Users can take pictures or video right from their headsets, use the Word Lens app to translate menus and signs on the fly, listen to music, make phone calls or get golf course data in the middle of a round. In short, Google Glass essentially gives the wearer a hands-free device that can do everything a smartphone can and more.

While Google Glass may feel like a futuristic technology, the product is now in open beta, and with more and more showing up on the street every day, the future is now. And even more amazing technologies may be coming soon. Since raising over $2.4 million on Kickstarter in 2012, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has been turning heads (no pun intended) as a way to provide a truly immersive gaming experience – or perhaps just virtual experiences in general. This is an area of wearable tech that could see extensive development in the next few years, as Samsung and Sony are also developing competitors in this arena.

Backlash Leads to Bans in Casinos, Other Venues

As with any emerging technology, there have been a number of issues with wearable tech as we try to figure out just how it’ll fit into today’s society. Most notably, these issues have played out with Google Glass – a product that has seemingly annoyed as many people as it has amazed.

Earlier this year, Google released a list of do’s and don’ts for Glass users in an attempt to minimize the negative reactions others were having to the way individuals were using their innovative technology. It included such helpful hints as always asking for permission if you’re going to be recording video or taking pictures, and reminding users not to be a “Glasshole” – a rude or creepy user who didn’t respect rules that apply to all cameras and phones or violated the privacy of others. In a recent incident, a restaurant in New York’s East Village asked a woman to take off her Glass. When she refused and left instead, the restaurant was soon targeted with negative reviews online that referenced their stance on Google Glass.

Given that Glass can be recording at any time, it’s no surprise that many venues that have rules against cameras are also banning its use. The list of places where you may not be able to use Glass includes movie theaters, strip clubs, hospitals and in your own car, at least while you’re driving.

And if you remember our discussion of the evolution of wearable technology from the beginning of this post, you shouldn’t be shocked to find that casinos aren’t a big fan of Google Glass, either. Across the United States, bans on Glass are flooding in from casinos and gaming regulators, who see the technology as a threat to their games.

“If these eyeglasses were worn during a poker game, they could be used to broadcast a patron’s hand to a confederate or otherwise be used in a collusive manner,” wrote David Rebuck, director for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement in a memo to his state’s casinos. That was part of a directive ordering the device to be banned in Atlantic City, a move that has been repeated by casinos in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and other jurisdictions.

An Ongoing Battle for Casinos

As wearable technology continues to develop, it will pose new and difficult challenges for casinos to deal with. But in some ways, they have an easier job now than they did when Ed Thorp first shocked them with his wearable computer over fifty years ago. Not only are technologies like Google Glass more visible than his concealed device, but the law is now on their side: after all, when Thorp first used his computer to beat the casino at roulette, he wasn’t even doing anything illegal in the process.

Sign up to receive news