You Can Bet on It: Building a Gaming Infotainment Platform
Add an element of “gaming” to a point-of-sale, digital sign, vending machine or traditional Las Vegas style device and you’ve created an Infotainment Platform that requires special design steps.
When a user’s money, ID or other sensitive information is involved, an “infotainment” system takes on a more serious design focus. Although an Intel-based small form factor board like COM Express or Mini-ITX may be at the core of such designs, infotainment platforms require special design procedures, certification(s), and extra care.
Whether point-of-sale retail-like kiosks, interactive vending or Las Vegas-style gaming machines (Figure 1), all of these designs follow rigorous standards and may require certifications and industry protocols, yet still need to preserve years of a game manufacturer’s legacy hardware and software. And they must serve and entertain the user—the only element of the design the user really cares about.
Let’s look at three key suggestions for designing a gaming-style Infotainment system, seen through the view of embedded systems expert ADLINK Technology.
Infotainment and Intel®
An Infotainment platform such as a vending machine [refer to “Embedded Tech for Unbottling All That Vending Machine Data”] meets the core purpose—to vend product, to gamble, or to complete a sales transaction—but it also entertains the user. “Smart” vending machines may recognize the user’s face, suggest products to buy with catchy animated graphics, or interact with the user’s in-air arm gestures. In short: an Infotainment machine should also be fun to use.
Intel may have coined the term “Infotainment” as something like multimedia merged with performance-based embedded processing. Intel’s latest CPUs have amazing 3D graphics, loads of I/O to interface with sensors such as Intel RealSense™ cameras or slot machine mechanisms, and built-in software extensions designed to secure payments, data, and the user’s identity. In short, infotainment platform hardware is often based on Intel Core CPUs.
But gaming-style Infotainment is also big business. According to www.statistica.com, there are 1,511 casinos in the U.S. alone (2015) with an estimated revenue of nearly $65.5 billion. Las Vegas itself is about $6.2 billion; this kind of big money requires specialty electronics. And the electronics vary depending upon the kind of game played.
There are a handful of Tier 1 companies in the financial gaming machines space. Depending on size, the company can be completely vertically integrated—designing its own Infotainment electronics—or might outsource some or all of the embedded parts. Not all of these machines are slot machines, Keno or Poker, and companies may also sell the software game running on the machines.
Lock Me Up
Gaming is usually controlled by a government as a tax source and is heavily regulated, while the global Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM) represents the interests of the gaming industry in both the U.S. and abroad. In addition, there are several businesses and organizations that have developed peripheral device interface and protocol standards for gaming machines, including Gaming Standard Association’s G2S protocol and relatively new GDS (Gaming Device Standard) protocol for common interfaces like bill acceptors and coin changers. Gaming Laboratories International (GLI) is another contributor to gaming standards, while also acting as a test lab to check for regulatory compliance in different governmental jurisdictions. These are in place so vendors and users can’t—ahem!—game the system by cheating, either to avoid taxes or commit theft.
According to Dirk Finstel, CEO EMEA & Executive Vice President of ADLINK´s Module Computing Product Segment, regulated games can be categorized as Tier I through Tier III. Machine types can be Class II (games of chance, such as bingo), Class III (casino games like blackjack or roulette), video lottery terminal (VLT), server-based gaming (SBG), electronic gaming machines (EGM), fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT), amusement with prize (AWP) and more. As well, these infotainment platforms might require GLI testing to assure gaming compliance and security.
The Intel-based hardware controlling these machines is largely in common form factors such as Mini-ITX, PCIe add-in cards, or purpose-built gaming boxes (often embedding one of the other form factors). Intel’s latest Haswell, Broadwell, and Skylake Core™ processors are popular. Games may require basic graphics and minimal processor performance, or multiple independent displays and highest-resolution 3D rendering.
Interfaces include RS-232 and USB 2.0/3.0, plus a cadre of gaming/infotainment style I/O like ccTalk, and use protocols such as ID003 and EBDS. Think of the yellow/red/green tower annunciator on the top of a slot machine or a currency (bill) reader that alerts officials to winners or a machine error such as a full coin box in a casino—all are gaming-specific hardware.
For money-based infotainment platforms, the designer’s concern is how a bad actor (“thief”) might gain access to the system and ultimately cheat to obtain money. Secondary concerns are also with the operators: “skimming” money to avoid taxes or “rigging” systems to avoid payouts.
Systems are mechanically locked down to prevent easy access, but if one could intercept the signals to the currency reader, even Monopoly money could pass for a $20.00 bill. The designer’s challenge is to minimize the attack surfaces—from I/O to the processor and memory—and to comply with regulations while still entertaining the user so (s)he will spend more money.
These all make for a challenging design.
What to Know…and Do
According to ADLINK’s Finstel, infotainment designs fall into two broad categories: legacy designs and new designs. In both cases the system box or chassis is seen as an attack surface. GLI standards make mechanical recommendations that go as far as how to design a cover that uses tamper-proof screws. Within the design itself, GLI also provides useful guidance on how to lock down memories such as one-time programmable PROMs or E2PROMs.
Our first tip is for legacy designs where the machine’s software and processing are being upgraded to contemporary game expectations with better graphics: think of the difference between Pong or Pacman and 2015’s Fallout 4. Here, the Intel CPU/graphics sub-system is upgraded and new software is run, but the machine interfaces remain the same. ADLINK’s answer to this kind of infotainment platform is to use an intelligent infotainment USB I/O controller hub. The company’s ADi-SIOG adds crypto and authentication, secure memory, gaming I/O protocols, and 32 inputs and 32 outputs (Figure 2).
The company’s ADi-SIOG is specifically intended for infotainment platforms like gaming and point-of-sale, while meeting Class II/III games, VLT/SBC, and AWP. It handles crypto on-board along with authentication, and handles common gaming protocols like ccTalk, ID003, SSP and more. The beauty of this solution for legacy equipment is how it meets regulations and certifications, is secure, yet provides USB-to-serial connections for up to 32 inputs and 32 outputs. The board also supports ADLINK’s Peripheral Device Library via iAPI; more on that below.
ADLINK’s Finstel offers a second tip: to choose a gaming platform that’s designed from the ground up for compliance and interfaces. ADLINK started the process of designing gaming platforms in late 2013 and introduced its first products two years later; those 24 months were spent designing, validating and certifying, says Finstel. The company offers three purpose-built infotainment platforms called Infotainment Box PCs: ADi-SA1X and -SA2X. They vary with options and I/O.
The ADi-SA2X, for example, is based upon a Mini-ITX standard card with an Intel CPU and a TDP from 35 to 65W at 50C (Figure 3). The controller can drive up to 8 displays such as video gaming terminals or POS kiosks, includes a TPM for secure authentication root-of-trust, and provides slots for various I/O plug-ins. One such add-on is the USB-to-I/O card shown in Figure 3. Field-removable disks allow fast software updates with minimal downtime, as well as immediate system de-authentication (“brain dead”) should the need arise.
Here’s the Hottest Tip
As noted above, the hardware for infotainment systems consists of standard components plus security provisions, but the compliance certifications accompanying some hardware is a game-changer. Hardware designed for infotainment and gaming systems speeds time to market. But even more important, says ADLINK’s Dirk Finstel, is a robust software ecosystem.
ADLINK’s SEMA cloud, a software stack designed for the IoT that extends diagnostics and control from end nodes into the cloud, is directly applicable to gaming platforms. It can allow operators and regulators to monitor infotainment platforms from afar, update software, and reconfigure systems. SEMA Cloud is shown at the top of the stack in Figure 4.
Equally important is middleware (software) that abstracts the peripheral hardware from the rest of the system, and includes easy ways to communicate with the broader IoT. ADLINK, for example, invested years in developing the Intelligent Infotainment Middleware (iAPI) that works with peripheral hardware like the USB controller in Figure 2.
This combination of infotainment-specific middleware, hardware, and gaming certifications plus purpose-built boards and boxes is probably the best bet in designing an infotainment-based gaming platform.
This article was sponsored by ADLINK Technology.