A smart-thinking startup is looking to facial recognition technology to help deter problem gamblers.
Going through customs in a foreign country isn't the usual place you'd come up with an innovative idea to benefit wider society. But for a lawyer with an interest in reducing the harm of problem gambling, it was.
Positive Outlook co-founder and director Jarrod True was coming through the SmartGate at Auckland airport when it dawned on him that facial recognition technology seemed to be pretty mature. And if the technology was mature enough to protect the country, then arguably it would be mature enough to protect a problem gambler.
The idea has evolved into Positive Outlook, a company that has developed FBI-certified facial recognition technology to identify self-registered problem gamblers and immediately disable the machine. It's comprised of a camera, a black box that takes instruction from the computer to shut the machine down and a micro-computer that does the face tracking, matching and extraction - all wrapped up and neatly installed into a panel at eye-level.
Positive Outlook co-founder and director Bruce Trevarthen (pictured above) is confident a nationwide deployment of the system would ensure problem gamblers couldn't sidestep their self-imposed restrictions.
"You put a couple of coins in and by the time you've done that we've already scanned your face, compared the algorithm to a database of known problem gamblers, and if you're a registered problem gambler then we disable the button panel on the machine. The machine's still running but you can't play it."
Of course, you get your money back, just without the bells and whistles you get when you win the jackpot. You just quietly get up and leave the gaming room without anyone noticing.
The rapid evolution of the idea to the commercialisation process is, in part, thanks to the cluster of innovative capabilities at the disposal of Trevarthen and his team. In 2007, Trevarthen established software developer and incubator Layer X, which along with hardware manufacturer B2 Technologies and, more recently, cloud services platform theCloud, gives Positive Outlook a range of resources unlike any other startup.
"Positive Outlook uses hardware smarts from B2, software smarts from Layer X, and the database sits on theCloud. It's a good example of the incubator delivering a solution."
Positive Outlook's goal isn't to sell its systems to big casinos like SkyCity. It's the pubs and clubs where Trevarthen says it would be most effective, making life easier for the bartender who is too busy pouring beer to check whether or not those on the pokies are registered problem gamblers - and the whole system would cost a venue roughly the same as purchasing just one new machine.
Trevarthen says it also removes the intimidation factor staff experience when acting as watchdogs. And unlike the majority of facial recognition technology, there are no real privacy concerns, because every user on the problem gambling database self-registers. There are more privacy concerns with the current system as photos of problem gamblers are displayed in bars for everyone to see.
"If it is a small community town, everybody is going to know you're a problem gambler. There's a shame factor and we believe people are not registering because of this."
Despite some support from gaming societies and anti-gambling organisations, the biggest barrier to the technology being implemented across the country's approximate 17,400 machines is, surprisingly, legislation.
Under the Gambling Act 2003, the system would ironically be classified as gambling equipment because it registers as any sort
of device attached to a gambling machine.
Trevarthen says in some ways the technology is too advanced for the legislation, which can be frustrating at times, but Positive Outlook is working with anti-gambling groups and policy makers to ensure all necessary steps are taken for any future deployment of the system.
With the recent passing of Te Ururoa Flavell's Gambling Harm Minimisation Bill, the ball is now firmly in the court of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) to mandate pre-commitment systems or other systems such as facial recognition based player exclusion.
Naturally, Trevarthen thinks his system would be more effective. One widely discussed variety of pre-commitment, where it would be mandatory for pokie and other gambling machine users to pre-register before they can play, would be too easy to get around and would unfairly impact casual gamblers, he says.
Positive Outlook is currently trialling its system in a New Zealand Community Trust venue in Hamilton.
The next step is what Trevarthen describes as a "full field trial", where the system is deployed across all venues in a small, relatively isolated town such as Gisborne. He says a successful trial will undoubtedly strengthen its sales pitch to the DIA.
If, after all this, the DIA decides not to use the Positive Outlook system, Trevarthen says they could always attempt to introduce the system to the gambling capital of the world, Australia, a location where legislation could be more on its side. While this is something Positive Outlook is exploring, for now Trevarthen has his sights set firmly on deployment on this side of the Tasman.