The winning pitch went to a pair of Winnipeggers at the Global iGaming Summit and Exhibition (GiGse), which took place in San Diego, California on Apr. 28, 2017.
The idea behind GiGse is to provide a platform for casino gaming industry participants and potential partners to meet and discuss, and to help presenters see the future of their business designs. Organized by GamCrowd and Clarion Gaming, heavy hitters in the gaming industry, the GiGse Launchpad Competition is where start-ups with the best new ideas in gaming present to an audience of professionals and a panel of venture capitalist judges.
This year, only five finalists were selected to present their ideas. In the end, two Winnipeggers beat out the competition and were awarded top prize.
The winners are two local entrepreneurs from nQube Data Science, who have academic day jobs at the University of Manitoba.
The engine behind the winning application is a very powerful software package – an artificial intelligence-guided evolutionary optimizer – which Dr. Jason Fiege invented in 2002, prior to his appointment at the University of Manitoba.
Since then, Fiege has applied the software to university research problems in astrophysics, medical physics, and engineering, plus external projects in computational finance.
Dr. Anastasia Baran, at only 32 years old, is the Chief Operating Officer of their company, nQube. In July 2015, she had the idea to use their AI-based software, Qubist, to optimize floor layouts for casinos. Casinos are ideally suited for advanced mathematical modeling because of the size, detail, and high quality of the transactional data collected by casino operators.
“Big Data” is a term that has become mainstream in recent years, and this particular problem is truly big – both in terms of the size of the data sets and the complexity of the models.
Fiege describes the spatial optimization of casino floors as the toughest and most subtle optimization problem that he has tackled. Fortunately, he had already developed the necessary tools, which allowed him and Baran to make rapid progress on this challenging problem.
Baran’s scientific career path began when she attended MIT as an intern designing a space satellite to safely house a payload of mice. She pursued a Master’s in Astrophysics and a doctorate in Electrical and Computer Engineering – both at the University of Manitoba. She also spent time as a Research Assistant at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia.
Baran is proud to be a woman in science, especially in a male-dominated field. She is a self-described nerd, and she says growing up with a love for Star Trek, X-Files, and all things science fiction helped take her down the path of curiosity, and, as she calls it, fun. That’s where nQube comes in.
nQube’s Baran and Fiege were extremely happy by their recent win at the Launchpad Competition, and were surprised to be the only Canadian company to make the cut, something both researchers are proud of.
“We were thrilled to be able to attend GiGse. It was a great opportunity for us to meet potential strategic partners, make new contacts, and attract investors to help us further our goals,” Baran said.
They have been working on their casino floor optimization package, which uses a mathematical model of player behaviour and slot machine attributes to design a floor layout ideal for both customers and operators.
Not only can this increase gaming floor revenue and profits, but it can also improve the entertainment experience for customers. Happy people having a good time want to spend more money.
Fiege and Baran have considered the societal impact of their work. They have attended conferences focused on problem gambling and hope to eventually model problem-gambling behaviours, and integrate casino floor designs that are less attractive to people with gambling problems.
They also note that this industry employs a lot of people globally, but has seen a downward trend in recent years. A boost in the casino’s bottom line means more stable jobs.
Fiege and Baran see this problem as a prototype for a more general class of resource-constrained spatial optimization problems, some of which are of great importance to society. What they learn from casino data sets may eventually find applications to public infrastructure and management as well.
For example, where should hospitals, emergency, and protective services be placed in a city? What is the optimal way to distribute resources in times of crisis? In addition, the Qubist back-end of the software has been used in an experimental cancer treatment system.
As the company grows and develops applications of greater societal importance, Baran expresses her desire to remain where their roots are. She intends to stay in Manitoba, and she and Fiege hope to grow the company to a point where they can offer competitive tech jobs to other Winnipeg scientists and attract others to the city. nQube’s growth could mean employment for fellow Winnipeggers, and the team would love to keep those scientists from taking their knowledge and expertise elsewhere.