Can You Hear Me Now?

Think video is the only way to go? Think again. Two-way audio is on the upswing. It is a less expensive sell than video, gives users peace of mind and contact with their security provider and is going wireless. And while video may be core to many currently, systems integrators need to identify ways to leverage audio to users for a complete system.

“Two-way audio and alarming are gaining considerably in the market,” said Tim Myers, senior product manager, Wireless Systems and Sensors Portfolio, Tyco Security Products, Toronto. “It is growing faster than video.” He said savvy dealers see audio as a cost-effective way to deliver interactive protection to the residential market and build recurring monthly revenue (RMR). And with the coming of wireless, the audio market has the ability to expand to another group of residential markets.

“Everybody should have audio,” agreed Bennie Cooper, sales engineer with Stentofon-Zenitel, Kansas City, Mo. “Everybody wants video and security card access but video is usually the third thing on their list. A system is not truly interactive if you can’t talk to the people you can see.”

Cooper confirmed the biggest markets for audio are in campus situations or any site with multiple buildings like a hospital, college or large pharmaceutical plant where buildings are spread out.


Audio gains traction in multiple vertical market environments

Johannes G. Rietschel, chief executive officer and founder, Barix Technology Inc., Oakdale, Minn., attributed the technology’s growth to how helpful two-way audio can be for monitoring, announcements and intercom communication.

“Audio increases security and it should be offered,” Rietschel said. “Security integrators installing a video system in a train station, where video surveillance is a must, should look at how to offer audio, whether separately or on a shared network. Two-way audio installations require good-quality standalone speakers to enable intercom and enhanced audio surveillance,” he said. A speaker built into the camera will not work in the latter situation, since the camera would be in the wrong position for the internal speaker to pick up everything. “Integrators need to plan for multiple microphones per camera, especially if you want to pick up audio from people whispering,” Rietschel added.

In the U.S., Spain and the United Kingdom—dominated by central stations—two-way audio is booming. In regions of Latin America or Asia where customers are cost sensitive and self-monitoring reigns, audio is not currently as important. However, domestically, audio is key. “The reason is cost,” Myers said. “Audio comes on every panel and is easy to operate. Two-way audio keeps cost down and makes an easier sell.”

Myers said that audio is of value in any market dominated by central stations in response to interior alarms. “At the next level, perimeter protection, it does not add as much value,” he added.

Two-way audio is gaining ground in the remote monitoring business as well, but only for those providers who can deliver a reliable and clear connection, according to Jon Bolen, chief product officer, Westec, Plano, Texas. While he is enthusiastic about dealers and integrators offering audio services, he warned of the complexities of audio.

“Delivering audio and video over the same connection will create quality of service problems for customers and providers who do not properly plan their wide area infrastructure,” Bolen continued. He said that his firm continues to segregate the audio and video transmission to ensure high quality of service.

Stentofon-Zenitel’s Pulse system, which uses all IP stations, is a good application for supermarkets, small offices or similar smaller installations, according to Cooper. It currently is being rolled out in pilot installations with full support from the firm’s Norway headquarters.

“Pulse takes away the central exchange, software licensing and the programming,” he explained. “Everything is done from a PC with a network interface card.” One master IP station can handle 16 substations. The master is G.722 compliant and acts as a SIP server. All the other stations register to the SIP server by auto-discovery. It supports a range of SIP-based VoIP phones and gateways. Where installations are copper-based, the server allows a POTS line gateway.

Yet, audio does not really make sense for applications such as centralized traffic monitoring where audio for red light cameras is not necessary. “But, there is an increase in audio surveillance in public areas, where a company or guard is handling security supervision,” Rietschel confirmed. In Germany for example, there have been increasing incidents of fights and harassment in subway stations.

“A remote guard who sees this on video will have a difficult time reacting,” Rietschel continued. “Being able to speak to the perpetrators and warn them that they are on video and police have been dispatched can potentially save lives.”

Bolen said that delivering service with both audio and video is appropriate for any market where virtual guard services can supplant physical guards.

“Even if a business is employing a guard they can deliver the same life-safety value at a fraction of the cost,” Bolen said.

Another interesting voice application is analyzing audio to detect fear and aggression. “In these cases, you aren’t really interpreting the spoken word but cameras have triggered based suspicious activity in the audio,” Rietschel said. This technique can appease privacy laws as you are not eavesdropping, but instead detecting moods through audio analysis.

Still, privacy concerns remain, depending on the application and the country, noted Rietschel. Casinos often allow simultaneous audio and video surveillance, especially where privacy laws do not prevent eavesdropping for security reasons. “ATM machines are another example where this is allowed,” Rietschel said. “Additionally, voice analysis can assist with suspect identification.” However, this technology is still unacceptable in a hospital environment, where people want to speak in privacy.


Make audio work for you

The first thing to do is look at the business goals and the lifecycle security goals of the customer, Bolen said. When selling their Virtual Guard Service, Westec never promotes audio without video or video without audio. “We offer fully interactive audio and video to our customers. Only if the customer requests it do we dial it back,” he said.

Myers pointed to wireless as the latest improvement in the system. Consider that it can take an hour to run a wire to a second-floor bedroom—so the advantage of wireless units in this installation scenario is obvious.

A home unit can be installed where the homeowner wants it to sit in the house. Digital Security Control’s (part of Tyco Security Products) Impassa is based on 3G radio (used by BlackBerry, for example). In addition to 3G’s faster speeds, Myers noted that cellular carriers will maintain 3G in their networks long after legacy 2G systems become obsolete.

In another wireless aspect, many homeowners abandoned hardwired phones for cellular. Not having POTS doesn’t necessarily mean no two-way audio. “Our Impassa system is a new, wireless 32-zone panel that can be integrated with POTS, cellular or IP,” Myers said. “It allows two-way audio over cellular communications.”

“The biggest installation failure is lack of serious technical expertise out in the field,” Cooper said. This vexes the project manager, who sees delays in the project.

“As we drive technology to more software and less hardware in systems, there are too many guys who never have been trained on installations,” explained Cooper. “If you sell a project, the person who installs it should have some idea of what he is doing.”

An installer also has to be aware of where they install the system, Myers advised. Noting that most panels have about a 50-foot radius, he said it is important for an installer to put the panel where it can be heard and where it can pick up the owner’s voice.

Another tip from Rietschel to maximize audio quality is to provide CD-quality audio and high dynamic range. “You need multiple microphones for any camera that provides an overview of a large area,” he said. “A microphone 30 feet from the source won’t detect whispering or low-volume conversations.” Audio quality is maximized by placing the microphones and the speakers in the right locations. “A camera with a cheap speaker, a poor microphone and a phone codec will provide miserable audio quality,” Rietschel said. A typical ISDN phone codec immediately loses the dynamic range required to pick up certain audio sources. “It makes sense to separate the audio and video in terms of devices, perhaps using an IP audio device and camera with no audio and strategically placing the microphones and speakers to intelligibly pick up as much audio as possible,” he continued.

Another non-technical key to success is to review local laws and be aware of what signage and notification are required from the compliance point of view.


Nuts and bolts as a sound solution

Audio is gaining ground and whether you choose to implement it with your video now or later, it is important to educate yourself on the capabilities. Keep pace with the developments, know what to do and what you need to make this solution part of your customers’ interactive security platform.



Curt Harler is a regular contributor to SD&I magazine and can be reached at