Eye on Video: How consumer electronics affects video surveillance

Every January, Las Vegas hosts the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest electronics shows in the world. Five years ago, vendors treated attendees to such innovations as megapixel cameras, next-generation DVD players that used the latest H.264 compression technology, large flat screen TVs and monitors, and new wireless technologies with much improved bandwidth for moving more data over the network. Fast forward to 2008 and look what vendors at the big physical security shows -- ISC West and ASIS -- are now showing: megapixel cameras, H.264 compression, wireless technologies with higher bandwidth and large flat-screen monitors.

In the '70s, it was the military and government that drove technology advancements. In the '80s and '90s, it was the business sector providing the push. Today, the enormous consumer electronics market is the driving force behind new technologies. The shift should not be surprising considering that Consumer Electronics Association reports that consumer electronics have grown into a $700 billion market worldwide. In the $10 billon video surveillance market, vendors are realizing it is smart to piggyback on innovations originally developed for consumers and repurposing them for physical security applications.

The following are just some of the consumer electronics trends that will play out in the physical security video surveillance arena in the coming year.

HDTV: Bigger and Better Images

The switch to all-digital broadcast television by February 2009 will soon relegate big picture tube TVs with a mere 480x720 resolution to a footnote in electronics history. With its vastly improved 1920x1080 resolution, guaranteed 30 frames-per-second frame rate, exceptionally crisp images and vibrant colors, consumer adoption of flat-screen, HDTV technology is progressing at an amazing pace. Fueling the success of HDTV are industry standards ensuring compatibility among home entertainment components, which opens the field to greater competition. This, in turn, drives cost down and makes the technology more affordable for a wider audience.

The success of HDTV will spill over into the video surveillance market in 2009 because the 16:9 aspect ratio is ideal for large flat-screen video monitors. In addition, the higher resolution standard delivers the image clarity so critical to real-time surveillance and archived video that be used as evidence in criminal proceedings. In a few years, 1920x1080 might very well become the standard resolution on most video surveillance cameras as well.

H.264 Compression: Less Storage or Higher Frame Rates

The dust is finally starting to settle regarding the issue of competing compression standards. While MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 (in all its multiple versions), and H.263 have each had their proponents, the plethora of incompatible compression standards created confusion among consumers. Competing factions finally joined forces in the '90s to hammer out a single, all-encompassing standard that could deliver superior compression without compromising image quality.

The result was H.264 (also called MPEG-4 Part 10 or AVC for Advance Video Encoding), which was ratified in 2003. Widespread adoption has followed and today numerous consumer electronics products incorporate the H.264 standard - everything from Quick Time players in computers and Blu-Ray discs in home entertainment systems to the ubiquitous iPhone in your pocket. Since H.264 was the product of a joint effort of standards-setting organizations in the telecommunications and IT fields, the technology possesses the necessary pedigree to become the de facto open, licensed standard for video compression.

Last year, several manufacturers in the security market launched products supporting this new compression and are meeting with great success because the technology gives users a choice. They can either use H.264 compression to reduce storage costs and thereby cut overall system costs by 10 percent or more, or they can maintain the same cost while doubling their frame rate or image resolution. In the coming year, expect to see more high-resolution video cameras taking advantage of this superior compression technology.

Wireless Bandwidth: Live Surveillance Feeds to a Cell Phone

Wi-Fi is everywhere: on the local street corner, in the neighborhood coffee shop, at the airport terminal, even on commuter buses and trains. In deploying 802.11 standards, many public venues are providing laptop users with bandwidths upwards of 50Mbits. Even cellular networks are upping their performance from the mere 9.6Kbits they delivered in their infancy to a more commonly available 0.5 to 5 Mbits today. Discussion is now underway among vendors about delivering next-generation (4G) bandwidths in the 10 to 100 Mbits range.

The surveillance industry is already starting to reap the benefits of these advances in wireless technology. For instance, mesh networks - which are based on 802.11 technologies - are making city-center surveillance systems much more flexible and cost-efficient. With the advent of smart phones with large screens and 3G support - such as the Apple iPhone - users can remotely monitor live surveillance video from anywhere inexpensively.

Storage Devices: Plentiful and Cheap

Our appetite for storage space seems insatiable. Every year, our PowerPoint presentations grow bigger and more complex. We continue storing an ever-increasing number of photos, music and video file on our home computers. Manufacturers of hard drives, hearing our call for more space, keep doubling the size of hard drives while driving down the costs. Even flash drives have come down to attractive price points for consumers with a bonus benefit of eliminating disk crashes since there are no moving parts in a flash drive.

Customers are pushing surveillance vendors to quickly catch up. Most video surveillance systems today specify frame rates from 7.5 to 15 frames-per-second, with video retention of a few days or weeks. This design is driven by system limitations and cost rather than customer desire. If customer preference ruled, 30 frames-per-second, HDTV resolution and archiving a couple of months of video recordings would likely be a more common request. With more efficient storage capacity technology on the rise and cost on the decline - helped along with judicious application of H.264 compression standards - enterprise security departments will soon get their wish. Flash drives will add another significant benefit to the mix because they make having small reliable recording solutions in harsh environments a possibility.

Where Consumer and Business Needs Part Ways

Not everything that is good for the consumer works in the world of video surveillance. Today's basic digital cameras, for example, start at 10 megapixels and go up as high as 20. Such high resolution is fine when you are taking one picture or frame-per-second, or even up to 6 frames-per-second for professional cameras. But in the surveillance world, where situations often necessitate recording up to 30 frames-per-second, high-resolution image sensors simply cannot keep pace. Only HDTV resolution cameras (with up to two-megapixel resolution) can guarantee a frame rate of 30 frames-per-second. If you opt for higher resolution, you often have to sacrifice frame rate.

Looking for the Next Major Innovation

Manufacturers continue to pushing the technology envelope in their effort to satisfy our perpetual craving for better, smarter cell phones, computers, TVs, videos, games and other as-yet imagined electronic gadgets. Since video and audio now comprise 90 percent of consumer network traffic, we can expect a lot of innovation in this area, which will inevitably benefit physical security and video surveillance.

So how soon can we expect our wrist watches to receive live video streaming from most Google map locations? While it might be difficult to predict the next major consumer electronics breakthrough, rest assured that we will continue to see those technological advances trickle down to the physical security and video surveillance markets.

About the author: Fredrik Nilsson is general manager of Axis Communications, a provider of IP-based network video solutions that include network cameras and video encoders for remote monitoring and security surveillance. His exclusive "Eye on Video" series can be found in Security Technology Executive magazine, SecurityInfoWatch.com and IPSecurityWatch.com.