Hardly a month goes by without being able to read about all of the latest installations of network camera technology. The transportation, government and educational markets have seen some high-profile deployments that can be both flexible and economical.
What are some of the new technologies and opportunities that network-based CCTV presents?
NVR. Those three letters nearly always accompany any serious discussion about IP camera technology. NVR stands for Network Video Recorder, and this is usually the back-end of the system that sits behind the cameras deployed in the field. The NVR — whether an appliance or a piece of software on a standard server — is responsible for all video management within the system. Typically, there is a way to access the NVR from various locations, whether local or distant, and the NVR is responsible for processing all requests for video. But how can we leverage the NVR platform to attempt to provide a more practical system?
Many NVRs are compatible with hardware from multiple vendors. This is an important part of any network-based system. It is this compatibility that enables end-users to customize their own systems and select the cameras that fit the application best.
The more vendors an NVR manufacturer is willing to work with, the more effective your video system can be. End-users often forget that they can mix and match cameras from various manufacturers, and instead opt to purchase their cameras from a single manufacturer. However, consider an application where several camera types are needed. If you needed wide dynamic mini-domes, day/night box cameras with vari-focal lenses, a 35x zoom day/night PTZ camera and a megapixel camera, you could probably get all of them from one manufacturer.
Instead of purchasing all the cameras from the same manufacturer, what if you consider a cross-manufacturer approach? You could end up with the wide dynamic mini-dome with the best dynamic range available, the box camera with the best day/night specs, the highest quality optics, as well as a PTZ with the best low-light sensitivity and a megapixel camera that offers the resolution you need. This is only an option if the NVR platform that is selected offers support for cameras from various manufacturers.
Some people will say that going with different manufacturers makes for a support nightmare, but this is where a qualified integrator has a chance to shine. When going with a network-based system, it becomes important to select an integrator that has real-world experience with networks and the pitfalls that can be common in a network environment. This is not the time to look for the integrator who gives you the lowest price. While price should always be a consideration, every factor surrounding the integrator should be considered. Don’t be afraid to ask for references. When looking at previous jobs an integrator has done, be sure to ask about their ongoing support. It is this support that you would need when going with a multi-manufacturer camera deployment.
A qualified integrator should be able to handle a multi-manufacturer camera system, and they should be able to provide any necessary support in a situation like this. In a network deployment, an ongoing support agreement should definitely be considered. While any deployment should come with at least one year of warranty coverage for parts and labor, when the warranty is over what happens? You will want an integrator who will be around for the long haul.
In recent years, the camera market has been literally flooded with offerings. In the past, you may have had only four or five options for a particular camera style, you may now be presented with 10 to 15 cameras — all of which might meet your needs. Don’t be afraid to look around and perform your due diligence.
It would be prudent on your part to ask for live demonstrations when you are considering cameras that would go into a wide-scale deployment. Perhaps a side-by-side test is in order. Whichever camera manufacturer you choose, it is important to make certain that their cameras are supported by your NVR platform. Remember, these are not analog cameras that you can just plug into any DVR you choose.
H.264 is a buzzword in the camera market. Various camera manufacturers claim that their cameras use this latest compression engine, but what makes it so alluring? MJPEG technology was one of the earliest forms of compression, and is still in use in many installations. This compression enabled us to achieve good image quality, but the cost was often high. The bandwidth consumption of cameras using MJPEG compression were considerable, and this led to many holding off on a network-based deployment. With high bandwidth use comes high storage needs, and this was yet another barrier to entry into the network surveillance market.
Enter MPEG-4 compression, which offered compression which reduced bandwidth and storage consumption by up to 60 percent. This was a step in the right direction, and as network technology itself improved, many people thought it might be time to start seriously considering a network-based system. For others, the costs involved were still too high.
H.264 is a compression technology which improves on the bandwidth consumption even further. A properly configured camera using H.264 compression can reduce bandwidth and storage consumption a further 50 percent above and beyond MPEG-4. This has the ability to bring a system within reach of many end-users who might not have considered a network system in the past.
Megapixel cameras offer many customers what they consider to be the holy grail of video. The ability to zoom in on video after the fact can be a key component in conducting investigations and providing useful evidence to law enforcement. Up until relatively recently, megapixel cameras offered high quality video — far beyond that which could have ever been expected from a traditional CCTV camera — but the costs were often prohibitive. Megapixel cameras could require up to 15 times the storage and bandwidth in comparison to a traditional 4cif resolution camera.
As the H.264 compression format moves through the IP camera industry, megapixel camera manufacturers were among the first to widely adopt this compression. When an end-user realizes that a megapixel camera is now a realistic option — requiring as much bandwidth as perhaps only two or three standard resolution cameras — it may be worth it to consider megapixel cameras in certain areas of a facility.
A single megapixel camera can offer 12- to 15-times higher resolution over a standard NTSC image. This does not mean that end-users should attempt to replace 12 to 15 cameras with a single 5-megapixel camera, but in a location that once had only one or two cameras monitoring an open area such as a parking lot or baggage claim area, perhaps a medium-range megapixel camera might be better used. Megapixel cameras often offer better situational awareness, and the ability to better identify a perpetrator.
Along with all of this technology, we hear about customers who use video analytics for various applications, from perimeter security to situational awareness — but what else can analytics offer? While analytics are definitely versatile and practical in many applications, there are many pitfalls. Camera placement is key, and the labor to set up and program analytics for just a single camera can often be several times that of a standard camera. How then, can we justify using this technology?
Consider for a moment the possibility that a network system, incorporating video analytics, could be configured to allow use of video for something beyond security. Think about a retail application that has cameras to reduce shrink. A video analytic could be used to perform a people-count in the cash register area. If the number of persons there exceeds a certain threshold, the system could send an e-mail or text message alert to a manager to put more cashiers in the front of the store, and increase efficiency. Analytics can be used to perform real-world research on the conditions in an environment like a retail store, to see on how many occasions in the past 30 days the number of persons in the checkout line exceeded a certain number.
Technology Leads to ROI
Some of these examples are non-traditional, but does that make them any less valid? The more options that you consider, the more you may realize that a video system can do more than just reduce crime or reduce liability in your facility. A video system used in a non-traditional way could help you dramatically increase your return on investment. One of the most powerful characteristics of the convergence movement is that technologies can be used in new and innovative ways that improve business as a whole, not just improve a video, voice or data system.
Perhaps now is not the time for you to take advantage of all of these opportunities. There is nothing wrong with saying that this is not the right time for a particular kind of system — because there is no good reason to implement technology for technology’s sake. These ideas however, are worth keeping in mind, as technology develops further. Perhaps you will come up with an idea of your own which is tailored for your particular vertical. Using video in ways that you never thought about before may not only help you make money, and help secure your facility, but it may be easier than you think.
Robert E. LaBella Jr. is a consultant at Aggleton & Associates Inc., a security consulting and systems design firm in the New York Metro Area. During his career Mr. LaBella has both designed and managed projects requiring large scale integration. He can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org