SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Asia's new mega-casinos are driving sales and innovation in advanced surveillance technology, from chips with built-in radio transmitters to high-definition, multi-lens, digital cameras that can scan huge gaming floors and catch the deftest sleight of hand.
Security solution providers such as German-Australian joint venture Dallmeier International, California-based Pelco, a unit of Schneider Electric PA, and Samsung Techwin Co Ltd, about 25 percent-owned by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, are among those reaping the benefits of Asia's casino building boom.
Tens of thousands of security cameras, including some of the most advanced commercially available, have been installed in the southern Chinese territory of Macau alone in the past five years, and many thousands more are on order for the multi-billion-dollar hotel-casino resorts still in the pipeline.
"It's big business. The camera market here has started to get very big ... It's probably the most demanding environment for a video surveillance system anywhere in the world," said Craig Graham, Dallmeier International general manager for Asia.
"Some of these guys (casino operators) have 700 tables and up to 1,000 slot machines, all of which have to be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Graham said Dallmeier had about 20 percent of the video surveillance market in Macau's gaming industry, where its clients include Sands China Ltd, a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands Corp and one of six casino firms licensed to operate in the only place in China where casinos are legal.
There are around 100,000 cameras installed in Macau's casinos, according to industry estimates, with room potentially for another 50,000 over the next five years. Companies declined to say how much the industry was worth.
"It's allowed firms such as ours who deal with cutting-edge surveillance technology and video analytics to gain a good loyal customer base in Macau," Graham said.
Bob Ruggles, Pelco's Asia-Pacific business development manager based in Macau, said Asian demand had "allowed us to push our products to the limit" of innovation.
In contrast, he said casinos in Las Vegas had been slow to adapt to advances in digital technology, and some were still using VCR tape, in part because of the costs associated with replacing old analogue systems. "No one (in Macau) uses analogue anymore. Those days are gone," he said.
Over the past decade, Macau's casino boom has transformed the former Portuguese colony - once known for its triad-riddled gambling dens - into a global gaming centre boasting annual revenues of about $40 billion, six times those of Las Vegas.
China's economic liberalisation and the growth in private wealth have spawned casino mini-hubs in the Philippines and Singapore, all supported by high-rolling Chinese players who think nothing of betting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single hand of baccarat.
The more money that flows through Asia's casinos, the more determined the cheats become - probing for signs of weakness and vulnerability, and sometimes all it takes for them is some off-the-shelf gadgetry or inside help.
Police arrested a casino pit manager and junket employee in Macau in May after surveillance video allegedly caught them rigging a card shoe at a baccarat table in a VIP room. In August, police arrested a croupier and five suspected conmen from Taiwan after watching the dealer pay out more chips than gamblers were entitled to during his shift. And this month, police arrested two local female dealers after staff monitoring CCTV caught them pocketing two gaming chips worth HK$100,000 ($12,900) from a casino on Macau's Peninsula.
Two years ago, in the Philippines, a gang was caught using micro-cameras hidden up their sleeves to film the shuffle and relay the footage to accomplices who in turn informed them how to play.
"Thieves have become more sophisticated," said Joe Pisano, chief executive of Jade Entertainment and Gaming Technologies, a Manila-based provider of gaming technologies. Even so, he said new security measures were making life tougher for the cheats.
"Now, with everything being electronic, there is probably a lot less (fraud) than 20 years ago, when you could have used a metal bar and a light to get coins to drop out of the slot machine," Pisano said.
Facial recognition technology is at the vanguard of the newest surveillance systems, allowing casinos to spot known troublemakers whose names they share with each other and the authorities. But the software needed to reliably identify people is in its infancy and some companies are unwilling to take the risk of mistaking law-abiding customers for cheats.
"It's just not worth it," said one Macau casino executive, adding that visitor traffic at some of the bigger casinos could overwhelm the software.
Casino operators are reluctant to risk new surveillance technology until its reliability is proven, due to the costs involved in shutting down VIP tables or alienating wealthy players. This can make it difficult for new entrants to the industry, or those without a strong track record.
That said, none of the casino operators want to fall behind either, even though the latest security technology is very expensive, the executive said. "Everybody keeps up to date with all the improvements so we're not lagging behind in any way. Obviously, with new properties you go with the better product, the upgraded version," he said, asking not to be named so as not to reveal his establishment's security capabilities.
Another evolving trend is the matching of video with object tracking and other data about players and staff to highlight situations that may not be obvious on raw footage. Within a year or two, people in the industry believe data analysis tools will be able to track the behaviour and motions of dealers to spot any deviations from normal procedure, and alert managers accordingly.
"Before, you used to have people walking around in the ceiling looking through one-way glass. With the new mega-casinos here (in Macau) the technology needs to be more intuitive," said Dallmeier's Graham.
Casino operators elsewhere in Asia look to Macau as the benchmark in security technology.
"Ours is really built around an international or Macau standard, at the very least," a casino executive in the Philippines told Reuters. "We know there is a group of players that like to victimise newly opened casinos."
($1 = 7.7550 Hong Kong dollars)
Additional reporting by Miyoung Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Ian Geoghegan