HD gets its day at ISC West 2010

Despite a sometimes mixed messaging on what HD surveillance is, video industry starts to educate buyers

[Note: Article updated with more information on HD marketing and standards]

Las Vegas, Nevada, March 26, 2010 -- Every year, there seems to be an orchestrated theme of a tradeshow. Go back two years and everyone was talking IP video. Then it became video management systems. And then the theme was megapixel video. Then H.264 compression. This year it's HD surveillance - high definition video surveillance products.

You simply can't walk ISC West for more than 100 steps this year without seeing another booth with a marketing message about HD video. But the problem is that HD seems to be getting a mixed message at the show. Everyone has a different way to explain it, and while some might think that only breeds confusion, I have to think that the overall benefit is good in that at least people are trying to explain HD.

At the Honeywell booth, where they are showing new HD cameras, I was told that HD can be understood as the middle ground between analog and megapixel video surveillance. That analogy generally works fine, except that HD video is by nature megapixel video (based on a pixel count), but it's certainly not the multi-megapixel sensors that most people think of when you hear megapixel these days. Megapixel, it seems, has sometimes come to refer specifically to cameras that have resolution greater than HD. Again, it's an industry naming convention that can help non-techie end-users and dealers understand core product differences.

I visited Sony's booth where HD video products are on display in a very big way. I went a little deeper into HD surveillance, and here's what Sony's Mike McCann had to say. "HD is a standard; it actually is megapixel, you can't really separate it [from megapixel]. The way I describe it is that megapixel is just a pixel count, while HD is a complete system." McCann's point is that while "megapixel" can take many variations, HD has to fit into specifications that come out of the movie/TV industry that are generally described as 1080p or 720p (these are the two accepted HD resolution standards). He notes that HD specifies certain color standards and even video compression formats.

Axis' Fredrik Nilsson said that it's important that vendors talk about what HD really is. "We have HD cameras here at the booth, and an integrator came to me and asked if that meant our cameras had more than 540 TV lines [of resolution]. I thought that I clearly would have to start at the beginning with this integrator and explain the difference between analog and IP video to even explain what HD is. There's a lot of confusion out there on what HD is."

Indeed there is. At one booth on the show floor, I saw a product line of "HD" cameras. Some of them actually were very nice cameras that followed the HD standards, but some in the product line didn't even meet HD resolution standards, but had been grouped into the same "HD" product family for sales reasons. To a buyer who isn't an HD geek, how do they tell the difference? The problem is that HD is sometimes used more as a marketing tactic than as a statement of adopted video standards.

In some ways, the fact that there is confusion on HD inside the security industry is rather surprising. After all, this is a technical industry, and HD isn't exactly new technology - it's all over the latest TV sets and being used by the television broadcast companies. In 2007, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that 30 percent of U.S. households had an HD television. By late last year, the percentage of households with an HD television was 60 percent. So, with high adoption of HDTV in the consumer industry, why is the security industry lagging behind and still trying to get its head around this trend?

One reason may be that HD video surveillance is still ahead of the curve in an industry that is still dominated by analog cameras and DVRs, and which is only now starting to adopt standard resolution IP cameras.

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