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William Hill and the geeks’ mission to save the world

14th May 2015 8:32 am GMT
William Hill

William Hill was showing off at the Digital Shoreditch festival and its rivals should follow suit.

There cannot be many times that William Hill executives are welcomed to the conference stage by a man in a cowboy hat. But this is London’s trendier-than-thou Shoreditch and they do things differently round here.

The Digital Shoreditch festival is a convention of geeks presenting their innovative thoughts and products to their geeky peers. It is a celebration of their own brilliance.

William Hill’s director of innovation & customer experience Jamie Hart will probably not mind being described as his company’s chief geek. Anyone who knows him will realise he’s not really that geeky. But he speaks geek and understands geek. This is a good thing. Ever since Steve Jobs unveiled the ipod, the geeks have taken over.

In Shoreditch Town Hall, Hart presented the company’s most technically advanced products together with Crispin Nieboer, the chief of William Hill Labs (based round the corner), and joint venture partner Unit 9, which provides the, er, storytelling skills, according to their PR. If you speak to someone at Hills, they will tell you they provided the virtual reality skills.

The most impressive aspect of the presentation was the prototype for the company’s ‘Get In The Race’ app for Google Cardboard. Yes, Google Cardboard. For the uninitiated, they are cardboard goggles, which you slot your phone into to get a virtual reality experience. They only cost about £8.

The app lets you sit on your fancied horse as it is going round the course. For this presentation, the Hills team hauled a life-sized, legless model horse onto the stage. It looked like a 3D printout….pixellated and white. But very big! It allowed one lucky volunteer to get the whole Occulus Rift effect, which is a bit better than Google Cardboard.

The innovation is not quite ready to be rolled out to punters. Hills has enlisted the British Horseracing Association to provide live GPS data of the horses in the race. The two parties have yet to strike a rights deal that enables the product to go live but the BHA sees this as a great way to reinvigorate the interest of a younger generation.

It is hoped that the innovation will stir the betting industry’s engagement with horseracing in a similar manner to live odds’ impact on other sports. One can imagine an arcade-style booth in an LBO. You could even line up against your friends on different horses. But that is some way off.

More imminent is Hills’ Priority Access card. Hart tells the story of how customers would moan about winning on a Saturday afternoon but not being able to withdraw their funds until midweek.

“What is the point in winning if you can’t celebrate there and then?” customers would complain.

The solution was a deal with MasterCard and the result of that was the Priority Access card, which will be credited with your winnings immediately. You can then go to any ATM and withdraw the funds or spend them on champagne in your local bar. The added benefit is the funds won’t go anywhere near your bank account. The card soft-launched last year and is being used by punters already. It was launched with the catchphrase “don’t wait to celebrate”.

“I think this will disrupt as much as when we went online,” said Hart, who pointed out that those with the card bet an average of 27 per cent more than those without the card. It is not clear whether he was comparing punters with similar betting behaviours because the card is clearly for regular punters rather than recreational bettors, who would be unwilling to jump through the hoops required to get a new card.

It could be that Hart is exaggerating a wee bit. Earlier Nieboer outlined the six “disruptive innovations” that have shaped the recent history of the industry. Those were: online gambling; P2P betting exchanges; online poker; in-play betting; mobile and social. I’m not convinced a credit card will have quite the same impact but Hart pointed out that it was the number one complaint from customers.

William Hill’s presence at the festival was largely a recruitment ploy. And it might have worked. Without wanting to exaggerate its impact, the presentation created a bit of buzz and the executives had a few people eager to chat afterwards. The response certainly felt a bit more enthusiastic than the polite applause that had greeted some other talks that came before and after.

In the evening, Hills’ opened up its Shoreditch Lab to developers to celebrate the launch of its public developer platform and API programme. Hills’ own developers were on hand to chat with third party developers eager to collaborate on new ideas. Again, the buzz was significant with darts champion Gary Anderson on hand to enliven proceedings beyond the techie huddles.

The day showcased the development of William Hill Labs from its humble beginnings just over a year ago. Back then, we met chief technology officer Finbarr Joy, who talked us through his vision. He was around again last night, delighted to be showing off the first fruits of the Labs’ labours. The Lab, incidentally, has more than doubled in size since then.

Chief executive James Henderson was also at the Hills party to lend his support. I don’t think Henderson will mind it being said that he seemed considerably less well versed in speaking geek. He was probably more at home during his meeting with the British Horseracing Authority the following day. However, if he is unlikely to walk into that meeting claiming his geeks are going to save the racing industry, he can at least say they are trying.

sah@gamingintelligence.com

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