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Issue Date: Vol. 43, No. 12, December 2003, Posted On: 12/20/2003


Route Management Software Professionals Foresee Total Automated Collection Solution


Marcus Webb

U.S.A. - For several years now, the pieces have been coming together for amusement operators to implement what suppliers call the "total automated solution" to amusement machine data collection and processing. Early next year, another huge piece of the puzzle will fall into place: Coin ConneXion and Point Blank Solutions will roll out new products to make the "total automated solution" a reality. A small PCB that is linked to an infrared communicator can be installed on each machine on location, enabling collectors to automatically transfer a machine's data to a handheld collection device in seconds , with virtually no possibility of error or inaccuracy.

The PCB interface, "AccuCount," is smaller than a credit card and can be installed almost anywhere inside a machine. "AccuCount" is described as no bigger than 2 ins. x 3 ins., while the infrared communicator is 0.5 ins. by 1 in. The system is already up and running in a 12-machine test location on an amusements route in Seattle, among others.

"Not only is the 'total automated solution' possible, but we have it installed and working," said Coin ConneXion president Dave Jensen. "The 'AccuCount' in concert with our 'Dolphin' handheld data collection device is incredibly quick. The collector just walks up to a machine, scans it, punches a couple of keys, and he's done. It's all working very smoothly in field tests now with clients, and we expect to be in approved mode shortly. We will jointly market 'AccuCount' with Point Blank Data in the first quarter of 2004."

Initial list price for "AccuCount" is expected to be $90 per board. Executives said costs will come down significantly with economies of scale, especially for larger operators who equip hundreds or thousands of games with the "AccuCount" system. Precisely how far the price per unit could drop remains a bit unclear. But Coin ConneXion officials believe a simplified version of the unit can be offered at a cost that is "attractive" to leading amusement operators.

Point Blank's Tom Martin said his company integrated "AccuCount" with Coin ConneXion's "Dolphin" handheld data collection device prior to the fall, 2003 AMOA International Expo. "That show was our launch," said Martin. "We have also integrated 'AccuCount' with 'Palm Pilots' and 'Windows CE,' which Coin ConneXion also uses as a handheld data collector, and which smaller operators can use in concert with Microsoft Excel or other non-dedicated software programs for a very low cost. We are very excited about bringing this technology to the amusements industry. It is complete automation: there is no human intervention, no manual entry."

"AccuCount" can track four different data fields of the operator's choosing. These may include any combination of coins in, credits in, credits out, coin door openings, power off, or cross-check meters to actual coin drop. There is a battery-powered version of "AccuCount" for bulk vending that permits a single PCB to handle up to 13 fields for multiple heads on a bulk vending rack. The battery version also works for pool tables that have no power. The battery lasts for a full year, officials said.

Also in the works from Point Blank Data and Coin ConneXion is a product that would complete the circle and take the "total automated solution" to its logical conclusion: a modem-based system that downloads collection data from machines on location to the operator's office computer, without a collector physically being present at the location.

"For locations with 20-plus machines on a single site, we have a network device that daisy-chains the machines," explained PBD's Martin. "At the end of that run is a 'PBD Collector' with modem. It gathers all data from each machine and downloads it to the operator's office computer. Or, the operator can dial in and find out how each machine is doing. Information can be sent by e-mail, downloaded, or sent in many ways. We anticipate this application will be ideal for Laundromats as well as large gaming facilities. Ideally, we hope to cut operator costs, increase productivity and keep their money safe."

THE BIG THREE

For several years now, all three leading providers of route management software , Coin ConneXion, Premier Data Software and Silent Partner (owned by Incredible Technologies) , have offered handheld data input devices for collectors to use on location. These devices allow the collector or service technician to manually input machine and location data into the portable unit's memory via keypad or touchscreen.

Point Blank Data executives say they are talking with Premier Data and Silent Partner about integrating "AccuCount" with the latter two firms' systems. Officials from Premier Data and Silent Partner say they are certainly interested in the concept , if the price per unit can be brought down far enough to interest the operator. Just where that price point would have to be fixed is a matter of opinion.

Premier Data Software makes the "Super Route Manager/i" route management software program for the operator's computer; it works with the "SRM/i Onsite" handheld system, called "Super Route Onsite" ("SRO" for short). "Super Route Onsite" uses a Microsoft "Pocket PC" such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell and many others. The lightweight unit is about 3 ins. x 4 ins. "SRO" allows collectors to enter meter readings by using a touchscreen or keypad. Using "SRO," a collector can manually type in the data from a machine's meters. The "SRO's" onboard program validates the meter reading, figures out the correct cash that should be in the cashbox, calculates the correct location split, and , with a printer , can print a receipt for the location on the spot. Latest upgrades give the unit some 32 megabytes of memory, which allows "SRO" to run even quicker and permits a single "SRO" to store all route information for an entire company.

The newest handheld data collection option from Premier Data is called "SRT," short for "Super Route Tablet." This version uses a fully operating tablet PC with touchscreen so that collectors don't have to employ a physical keyboard. It's about the size of a standard laptop, but thinner. Executives say the tablet version can cost up to $18,000 but is "much more robust" than PDA-based units. (See VT, February).

Premier Data has also perfected , but is not yet marketing , another advanced version of its handheld device called "SRO-Thin Air" that works with infrared technology. This product is awaiting a sufficiently low-cost PCB interface for machines on location, Rob Mayes of Premier Data told VENDING TIMES. Mayes said that "The future for data collection in the amusements business will be one in which machines can just report automatically over the Internet through a wireless connection. We'd like to see 'Bluetooth,' where you can just stand next to a machine and the handheld can poll upon command without physically opening it. But first," Hayes cautioned, "the cost has to be at a reasonable level."

Premier Data believes that amusement operators must have a minimum of 200 machines on their routes before automatic data collection devices become a good investment. But if it costs $100 per machine to upgrade a 200-machine route to the "total automated solution," Mayes pointed out, that would require a further investment of $200,000 to install. "I would think cost has to get down to $50 per board or below to make it a no-brainer," Mayes said.

Incredible Technologies' "Silent Partner" route management system can also be supported with a handheld device, called "Automatic Data Collection." It can be shipped on any pocket PC , IT likes several particular models from suppliers such as Dell, Ipaq, and Toshiba but executives say "ADC" works just as well on other brands. A portable printer is available to support the unit (Seiko Instruments "DP 3445" or Infinite Peripherals "PP-50"). Operators or route technicians use a stylus to enter data on the handheld unit's touch-sensitive screen, either through handwriting (a character recognition capability is included) or via tapping the letters and numbers of a virtual keyboard that is displayed onscreen. The stylus is also used to select items from a menu that is displayed on this same screen.

The benefits of the "ADC," said officials, are that it minimizes errors in the field. , especially in states that have an amusement sales tax where the collector must take 6% off the top before calculating minimums or splits. Second, using the "ADC" eliminates errors and saves time in the office when data is transferred from the handheld to the PC. Third, with a smaller probability of mistakes, locations are much more accepting of a printed receipt from a handheld computer rather than a handwritten receipt, officials said.

"An operator should probably have 300 to 500 machines to justify paying for even one handheld unit," said "Silent Partner" software engineer Len Smikun. "But if you pay your collectors and office data entry people $10 per hour, the unit pays for itself in under six months. We obtained this figure by asking operators how much time they saved on the route and especially in the office."

"Silent Partner ADC" can be upgraded to permit far-away collectors to download machine collection data from the handheld unit to the operator's central office computer. A wireless modem can be installed that enables files to be downloaded by e-mail using either wireless Internet, or by using a PC in the field (presumably at the nearest Kinko's or cyber café).

THE ULTIMATE GOAL

Asked about the prospects for the "total automated solution," i.e., auto data transfer onsite of meter readings from each machine to Silent Partner's "ADC" handheld unit, Smikun chuckled with the knowing tone of an expert who has heard this question many times before. "This 'total automated solution' is highly advisable and this is actually the final goal of the whole enterprise," he said. "After all, it makes it much easier and faster to collect meter readings and makes numbers much more reliable and tamper-proof. But there's a problem."

Predictably, the problem is cost. "At $100 [for an interface board to be installed in each machine on location], no one will buy it; there is no market for that," said Smikun. "From our investigation, it appears that operators are willing to pay maybe $40 per machine. It is not a big technical step for us or any other company to outfit our handheld unit to work with such a board; the price issue has been the major obstacle."

Coin ConneXion's "Dolphin" handheld unit is a specially programmed version of the same product that is used today by carriers of the U.S. Postal Service. It comes with a keypad and built-in wand with laser scanner. Collectors can use the scanner to read in a unique barcode that is affixed to each individual machine, then key in meter readings.

Now available is a "long-distance version" of "Dolphin," called the "RS-232 Dolphin," designed for routes with widely scattered collectors. It allows collectors to download data from any telephone jack in the collector's hotel room, home office, etc., to the operator's central office PC. But it does not require a PC on the collector's end. Instead, the "Dolphin" is accompanied by a $300 mini nine-pin modem. The collector simply plugs the "Dolphin" into this modem, then plugs the modem into a phone line, and sends the data back to the operator's central office. Coin ConneXion also offers a "remote office version" of the "Dolphin" with a PC for widely scattered collectors to e-mail files back to the office.

MODERATE ADOPTION PACE

Total market penetration for all brands of handheld collection devices is still in its infancy, agreed executives at Coin ConneXion, Premier Data and Silent Partner. While most large and mid-sized operators now use some form of dedicated route management software from these three, or else a unique proprietary system, officials from all three companies said 10% of their customers would be a very generous estimate of the percentage using handheld data collection devices.

Coin ConneXion's Jensen, who reported 1,000 units of the "Dolphin" unit are now on the street, cautioned that market penetration must not be estimated by the number of routes, but by the number of collectors who potentially could use this technology. "I firmly believe we have yet to begin to tap the market," Jensen said. "We could easily go to 10,000 units. Today's market penetration is 10% at the very most. We have a large number of prospects who are discussing putting 'Dolphin' into next year's budget. Many are waiting for that fully automated solution and if price points are right, we will see a lot of total automation in the next year."

Mayes agreed with 10% market penetration as a high-end figure. "It's not just a question of technological reliability and it's not even just an issue of cost," he said. "Remember, you are asking people to change the way they have done things forever as well as to make a substantial investment. I think you'll see people using handheld data collection devices more and more as they get comfortable with them."

Executives from all three software management makers were unanimous on another point about the total automated solution: It will not involve a central server where operators can use passwords to log into the system and retrieve their route-wide data. The reason, said executives, is that operators strongly desire to keep as much proprietary information as possible in their own computers, under their own control.

"Operators don't want it," Jensen said flatly of the idea of a centralized, third-party-maintained website that would host all operators' collection data. But Jensen did forecast a further degree of automation that could be achieved as the "total automated solution" evolves. "I can see the day when all locations will handle physical collections, and the machines would then do automatic wire transfers of funds from the location's bank account to the operator's bank account," he said.

Premier Data's Mayes offered a similar assessment of the central website databank idea. "Sure, we have the technology and expertise to do that and allow people to sign in and use it," he said. "That is where everybody says the future is and the technology is not hard. In another industry that we serve, we have a website where people can do that with medical claims, for example. But it has been our experience that amusement operators are very private about their data and I don't think many of them desire a central location database, even when it's maintained by a reputable company. They would rather have their data reside in their own PC. Any company that wanted to have operators use a centralized website would have to overcome that objection."

Mayes pointed out that Premier Data does allow operators to download program updates for the "Super Route" software management program over the Internet. This, said Mayes, gives operators the cost advantage of using the Net, while protecting the privacy of individual companies.

"Silent Partner's" Smikun responded with an explosive "No way," when asked if a centralized operator database might be offered someday. Operators not only desire to keep their data to themselves, he said, there is also the very real security issue that any such centralized system could make every operator vulnerable to hackers.


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