HD gets its day at ISC West 2010

[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.

"I don't think HD is yet resonating in the industry," said Pelco's Director of Global Marketing Herve Fages, who noted that Pelco's booth at ISC West is dominated by HD messaging. "Our message here at the Pelco booth is to show where the industry is going, to lead them. I do know that when we ask customers if they want better resolution or better picture quality, we hear that, yes, they want better picture quality. But they have to balance cost, storage requirement and bandwidth to get there. Pelco has been perceived as an analog camera company, and the message we're showing here with our promotion of HD video surveillance is that we aren't just keeping up with the IP video transition, but that we're ahead of the curve."

Fages said that HD video, which isn't the highest resolution video available today, is a reasonable point for the industry to aspire to, without being oversold on products they don't need.

"We are not going to give the industry technology purely for technology's sake." Fages said. "We want to give the industry the right technology. We could give you 20 megapixels, but who really needs that? High definition is not about blowing you away with technology; it's about giving customers the picture quality they want."

In addition to the number of IP camera vendors producing HD video solutions, one group in the industry touting HD surveillance has been the HDcctv Alliance, which was also exhibiting at ISC West.

"The HDcctv Alliance is the only security industry body with a license agreement with SMPTE that enables us to incorporate the 720p and 1080p technical definitions directly in the new HDcctv technical standards. While none of the cameras described in your article [the IP cameras] are capable of transmitting uncompressed 720p or 1080p video signals, every HDcctv camera has that characteristic, while transmitting a full 30 or 60 frames per second without any visible delay or compression artifacts. HDcctv is not merely 'more than 540 TV lines'; it starts with full-frame-rate, uncompressed 720p or 1080p signals and adds features that are valuable for video surveillance."

While at ISC West, Paul Bodell of camera maker IQinVision, helped break down HD video "marketing" to the numbers and standards behind it.

"If you look at how the standards and how megapixel is defined, what you see is that a megapixel camera is always HD, but an HD camera is not always megapixel," Bodell said. Bodell is correct according to the common, general definition of HD video, which says that "HD" only requires that the resolution be higher than standard definition video. Beyond that historic definition of HD video, there are two common HD format standards (among many HD formats). There is the 1080p standard, which is 1080x1920 pixels, or the equivalent of 2.1 megapixels. But there is also the 720p standard, which is 1280x720 pixels. That means it's technically not a megapixel, it's just under 1 megapixel (approximately .9 megapixels).

The other thing that Bodell noted is that while the industry often associates HD with H.264 video compression, the standard doesn't exactly specify that. While the industry tends to think that HD means progressive scan, that's also another misconception. HD allows for either interlaced or progressive scanning. The other Bodell noted is that HD doesn't actually specify 30 frames per second (fps). For example, 1080p has a specified range that includes eight frame rate options from 23.976 fps all the way up to 60 fps.

In the end, Bodell said, "HD is really about marketing more than it is about reality."

So, is HD (or megapixel) really taking off? Are megapixel and HD camera formats becoming popular for integrators?

While at ISC West, that question was posed to John Nemerofsky, the vice president of sales and marketing at systems integration firm Niscayah. John said megapixel video surveillance is growing steadily for Niscayah, especially for the clients who understand the how they can obtain a higher return on investment by using a single megapixel camera to replace multiple standard cameras. Interestingly, Nemerofsky also said that IP video in general was a blossoming business area for Niscayah. Already some 20 percent of Niscayah's new security projects feature IP video.

Despite such strong growth in IP video adoption among their customers, Nemerofsky was asked whether the "rumors of the death of analog video have been highly exaggerated?" He said, "yes." In fact, the company recently completed a 16,000-camera analog project.

But with 20 percent of their new projects featuring IP video, it's likely the next project of that size will not be all analog. At least some IP video is going to be involved in the next project of that scope, and based on what was being shown in the booths on the ISC West show floor, at least one of those IP video cameras is statistically likely to be an HD or megapixel camera.