Is Virtual Reality the Future of Poker?

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The game of poker doesn't require much – just an understanding of the rules, a deck of cards and some chips to measure your success against other players. But, as we move forward through the 21st century, and with technological developments showing no signs of slowing up, how long can the game stay at such a level where no modern-day tricks or gadgetry are needed? 
Alex Dreyfus of the Global Poker Index believes poker will become a "has-been game of the 2000's"  if new ideas and innovation aren't made. So, it almost seems imperative for changes to be made to save and strengthen this iconic card game. 
We've taken a look at a few of the key areas which could develop not only poker, but the casino industry as a whole. 

Virtual Poker to Become a Reality

The bright lights of Las Vegas and the chic sophistication of Monte Carlo may be a little closer than you think, if the world of virtual reality is to hit the casino scene in the future. 
Rather than sitting in a small casino on the outskirts of Norwich (no offence to Norwich, of course) playing a hand of poker, imagine you're at a high-roller table in the Bellagio or the Mirage, on the famed Vegas strip. Certainly makes playing poker seem all that more appealing, doesn't it? 
Although many view virtual reality headsets with doubt, believing it’s a step too far into a dystopian world that doesn’t exist, the idea of it has already gone down a treat within the social gaming sector. Gamers are able to transport themselves into a world far, far away from the realms of normality – the graphics seen in the immersive Grand Theft Auto V VR edition are exactly the same as those on a standard console, if not better. These three-dimensional computer-generated environments allow gamers to experience something out of the ordinary. 
But it's not just gaming that's taken to VR like a duck to water. You can enjoy the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall  and meet some of the earliest inhabitants of the earth up-close in David Attenborough's First life VR exhibit at the National History Museum, London  simply by putting the headset on. We've already got the 360 Video Poker in action where you can shoot 360-degree panoramas with parallax, so just how well would this more immersive technology work in the world of poker?
Oculus VR is currently the industry leader when it comes to virtual reality headsets, transporting users into a brave new world or just enhancing the visuals of our existing one. If VR was introduced to a game of poker, the aesthetics and décor of the casinos we see today could be very different. Rather than the decadent interior design we see in many gaming halls, you could literally just have a bare room and use the power of the VR to take you to another dimension. All the poker players would need to do is put on their headset and, well, that's it. 
Imagine sitting at a poker table with five different players, each seeing a totally different environment. One of you could be playing in a backstreet den of downtown LA, whereas another could be at the table in a Monte Carlo casino – it can be done! You can even take a trip up Everest - thanks to VR , so the casinos of the world is an achievable feat! 

Virtual Reality Meets Augmented Reality

Using the previously mentioned Oculus VR headset, Casino VR  hope to be the first company to break the barrier in the world of virtual poker. This team of San Francisco-based former semi-professional poker players are hoping to create a single game environment for players to relax and enjoy a game of Texas Hold'em. They have much bigger plans for further down the line and hope to develop Casino VR so that it can host a wide range of casino games. 
The company's co-CEO Hamza Siddiqui believes the move to VR platforms will be a huge positive for the industry, bringing in more new gamers than ever, thanks to the laid back environment. He told RoadToVR:
“A lot of people who play real life poker in a casino would say that they don’t like to play online poker because, to be honest, it’s a completely different game. Sure, it uses the logic of poker, but online poker is much more analytical — it’s basically a probability or numbers game. You have to play a lot of tables at the same time to make a living. Whereas real life poker is much more about social cues, psychological cues, the ability to read the person instead of the cards." 
The MGM Grand in Vegas has already trialled 3D poker, but sees it more as a novelty thing to do whilst visiting the casino. However, with the social casino scene already worth upwards of $4.4bn, think how much a VR casino could generate… 
It's also worth looking at the idea of augmented reality as another futuristic way of playing poker. Augmented reality blends our real–life vision with computer-enhanced graphics to boost the user experience through what we see, feel, hear and smell. In layman's terms, you mix your senses with a digital presence to have a good time. 
It is far closer to the real world, in comparison to the domain of virtual reality, with sounds and graphics used to boost the sensory experience. When you take augmented reality into consideration of the future of poker, you'll see it could have a huge impact. 
Unlike the VR headsets, which can feasibly transport you to an entirely different and fully immersive environment, using augmented reality software plays with your senses to give the impression that you're in a casino. You'd no longer need to leave the house to play poker – you'd simply put on your high-tech glasses and play online. It wouldn't feel like you're at home, as the augmented graphics and sounds bring out the ambience and feel of the poker table, through clever visuals and background sounds. 
But could playing poker through VR signal the end of the 'bricks and mortar' casino? Gambling companies could feasibly sell the headsets or software to keen gamblers – call it a sort of membership fee – and they could leisurely play cards against people from the comfort of their own home. 
VR allows you to see the cards in front of you in the third dimension, and the croupiers are all be digitally enhanced. Samsung has announced their intention to create a contact lens that incorporates a VR chip and camera , so having the headset wouldn't even be a necessity!

Will Casinos Turn to Robotic Dealers?

The role of the croupier is huge within casinos – they work the tables, deal the cards and, if you’re lucky, give you your winnings. But, as technology develops and the world enters more futuristic realms, is this a job where man or woman is set to be replaced by machine?
The answer – it certainly seems a strong possibility.
Paradise Entertainment is already attempting to pioneer the world's first robotic dealer – a 'female' croupier by the name of Min. Paradise believes that by introducing robotic dealers into casinos to deal poker and blackjack cards, or to spin the roulette wheel, it would increase efficiency on the floor, and potentially decrease a casino's financial outlay. Of course, there will be the original cost to purchase Min – a price yet to be announced – but without the need to pay any human employees a salary, the cost could soon be recouped. 
With her debut in Macau last year, Paradise Entertainment believes Min can open the door for casino operators to target new markets and, in the long run, overhaul the current casino scene. The Hong Kong-based gaming machine manufacturer has designed Min to look like an approachable female croupier, and have attempted to make her seem as realistic as possible when it comes to her appearance. 
Bloomberg described the robot as having, "an hourglass figure, an unflappable manner and a friendly face"  – we'll let you make your own mind up on that front once you've seen a picture. However, it's safe to say we won't be seeing Min on the casino floor for a very long time. As the robot is still currently under development, she can’t do much more than deal the cards right now. 
In the future, the engineers charged with building the robot dealer, hope to push the boundaries even further. They want to see Min speak – in more than one language – so she can be functional in any casino across the world. Talking to the poker punters is one thing, but can a robot really remember people's faces and voices? Well, that's the futuristic aim of Paradise Entertainment. 
This development could totally revolutionise the casino scene – the company hopes to develop the robots to the level that they can recognise a player's face, even if they haven't been to the casino for a prolonged period of time. Imagine that, walking into a casino, sitting at the poker table and the robotic croupier instantly recognising you and welcoming you by your first name – it could be an industry game-changer.
Aiming to make the gambling experience as personal as possible, Paradise feels a robot is the best way to create a friendlier all-round gambling atmosphere. 
The science behind Min isn't too shabby either. So that she knows how many cards she has dealt, scanners placed in her shoes will notify Min’s internal system that each player has the correct allocation of cards. Not only that, but she will also have cameras installed which, combined with the facial recognition, will allow for additional surveillance around casinos, notify staff that a gamer is getting a bit leery, or has previously been banned from the poker tables. Who knows, maybe one day the casino security will be robotic too.
According to statistics from Paradise Entertainment, the robo-croupiers can shuffle a deck of cards 30% faster than any human dealer, meaning an increase in productivity. With the proposed new dealers only being machines, the social interaction is removed, which can only quicken the dealing process. There's also a strong belief that more inexperienced gamers would prefer playing poker at a table with a robot dealing the cards, as they would feel less intimidated and that they aren’t being judged for any silly mistakes they may make . 
But with these futuristic developments that look set to hit the casino floor, there are just as many problems to consider. For example, if the electronic dealer becomes a real thing, there would be many human jobs on the line. In the coming years, you can expect to see further developments in this exciting field, but that isn't the only robot we could be seeing on the casino floor…

Man vs Machine

That's right – the idea of playing against a robot opposition is not as far-fetched as it first sounds. If you're the only player at the table, you'd have the opportunity to face a bit of competition and take on some fellow "gamers" – albeit ones that are made out of wires and metal. 
In fact, the first man against machine competition has already taken place. In April 2015, a computer science team from Carnegie Mellon University wanted to pit their robotic poker whiz kid, Claudico, against four professional poker players, Doug Polk, Dong Kim, Bjorn Li, and Jason Les, in a two-week face-off. They had a chance to win $100,000, but there was a catch. All they had to do was beat Claudico over 20,000 hands of poker – and bot designer Tuomas Sandholm made it so his creation could hold his own over 80,000 hands. 
Described as "Brains vs AI", Claudico would be facing difficult opposition – none more so than Doug Polk. As an online cash game specialist who has won over $3.6 million, you'd think he'd have no issues going up against a machine, right? Before the match, he commented on his potential tactics:
"My strategy will change more so than when playing against human players. I think there will be less hand reading, so to speak, and less mind games. In some ways, I think it will be nice as I can focus on playing a more pure game, and not have to worry about if he thinks that I think, etc. So I am looking forward to the match." 
Given a 50/50 chance of winning by his creator, Claudico's results were rather interesting. The machine was well beaten by three of the poker stars, but it did manage to topple one of the players, Jason Les, who ended up 80,000 chips down. 
After the match, Polk felt that although, at times, his robot opponent did play some good hands and was very tactically astute, he did end up playing some awful hands and placed a fair few over-the-top bets  – something that would seriously need eradicating if these machines were to hit the casino floor. 
The proof is in the pudding – robot gamers are a highly feasible option for the poker industry. It lets the poker players focus on their own game, rather than having the pressure of reading other people, or other people reading their tells. Allow some time for development, and next time you're sat at the poker table, you could be flanked by robots rather than human beings. 
The future of poker is certainly a bright one. The steady stream of technological advancements and developments are set to fill the marketplace, bringing a totally new edge to the world’s most popular card game, and the casino industry as a whole. 
Where these developments may stop, however, is a completely different question.
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