The Newest, Brightest and Best

I'm just getting back from the ASIS Seminar & Exhibits in Dallas, TX. That, added to my past year of frustration, gives me an edge on the current trends of the industry. Keep in mind, though, that the trends of the industry and the realities of the industry are still two or three years apart. They are also $2,000 to $20,000 apart. OK, I set the table; now let's lay out the feast.

As usual, I like to build from the field to the head end, so let's start with cameras. Overall, there have been three major issues with cameras for the past 50 years. They are resolution, sensitivity and features.

Camera Resolution
The current trends in resolution are great, particularly the trend of improving resolution in stages. This means I can get two or three different resolutions from the same camera depending on the situation. The kick, however, is that improvements in resolution are coming from the future products of the industry, not our long-term friends, the analogs. Analog cameras, even the great hybrids, are for the most part on the way out. We are, in my opinion, within short years of losing them almost completely to the IP cameras-the true digital cameras and the new class of electronics.

Analog cameras, regardless of their quality, are always going to be restricted in their detail and quality of image, due to their transmission and storage media. This has been true for 50 years and will be true to the end of our time. IP cameras, on the other hand, continue to jump forward in all fields, especially resolution. The trend is to develop megapixel resolution with limited bandwidth impact on transmission and storage. The advantage, of course, is that we are able to get extreme detail in our images with slight consequence to our system.

One and two-megapixel cameras are currently available, and three-megapixel cameras are on the way. Hold onto your hat, because those numbers will likely double over the next year or two. I can hold to this statement as I look at buying a new, eight-megapixel camera for my photography work. I'd buy the 10-megapixel unit, but I am waiting for the price to come down below $1,000. A few more weeks should do it, eh?

Camera Sensitivity
Sensitivity is the next step for trends, and this is being advanced from several directions at once. Of course the IP cameras are doing some great stuff, with camera sensitivity going to .003 lux. The real players right now are the newer day/night cameras with a nighttime sensitivity in the bragging range of .0005 lux. However, you can cruise between manufacturers and find the same technology, same general features, and same good quality, with price ranges of $850 to $6,000 retail. Lions and tigers and bears. It's like looking at government bids.

Will this trend of wide price spreads and improving sensitivities continue? Yes, I think so. The sensitivity may be at a peak for standard analog technology since it's only a step or so away from thermal, but the price spread will continue until reason comes to the market. So don't be afraid to shop around.

Thermal imaging is another player in the sensitivity game. This technology is fast becoming more available, smaller, better defined and affordable. Ten years ago, thermal cameras were for the rich. But now, compare the cost of adding light to areas of absolute darkness (especially if there is no electricity within half a mile or so) with the cost of a good thermal camera on a photo cell with wireless transmission and control. The thermal camera has entered a much more affordable price bracket, with standard viewing ranges of 30 feet to 2,000 feet.

The infrared market has also done a lot in the sensitivity field. Lamps and cameras are standing strong in the face of the future. IR is becoming very popular for short-term camera sensitivity issues. Covert, with many of the new LED arrays, is realistic for those areas that were off limits to us just a few years ago due to costs and/or a lack of technology.

Camera Features
Next, we go to features. Once again, the IP cameras offer the biggest bang for the buck. The features of the average analog or hybrid analog camera have not exactly jumped out and bit anyone lately. This is explainable. The IP camera has the advantage of being a computer. The higher you go up the quality ladder with these units, the more features become available. We can add just about any level of intelligence or programming at the camera level. It's like having a head-end controller at the front end of every cable or LAN.

The result is that large numbers of cameras can be used with little or no bandwidth impact. Why? How? Simple. The decisions are made at the camera. So instead of sending a continuous stream of high-bandwidth video back to the head-end for a decision, the camera picks what needs to be sent and sends only that information. We also have the ability in some units to store limited video streams until a request to download comes from the central body. What a hoot, eh? Will this trend of intelligence and decision making at the camera continue to evolve? Absolutely. We are, after all, working with computers. Just look where the Commodore 64 went.

Transmission Methods
From here we go to transmission methods. The leaders of the pack are twisted pair, fiber optics and wireless. More and more equipment is coming to the shelf with twisted pair technology built in. Will this continue? Absolutely. Why not? It has coaxial cable kicked from here to Bolivia.

Fiber optics just continues to get better. We can do almost anything with fiber today, including sending huge numbers of live, full-resolution, full-frame-rate video signals simultaneously in two directions on a single fiber. Next, add equal numbers of data signals, voice signals and generated instructions for your PTZs, and you are just scratching the surface of the best glass in town. Then, stage right, here comes wireless. WiFi, Blackberry and canopy systems. Talk about your plug and play. Imagine a full stage system where you could take a camera with a built-in transmitter/receiver and power it up at any point in your system-no, anywhere on your property. Then, using a PDA, portable computer or a PC, do a simple image and instruction set-up. Holy cow! Are we there? Absolutely.

The only problem at this point is that wireless systems still, for the most part, are restricted by bandwidth problems and so can only handle so many cameras at a time, even intelligent ones. What does the trend master say as we trudge up the next hill? Twisted pair will continue to grow in popularity, fiber optics will continue to blow us down, and wireless can only get better. Hopefully, the trend will be to continue to streamline the bandwidth required for high-detail images. If so, wireless could surface as a huge leader in the on-site transmission race.

Storage
Digital video recorders seem to have finally lost their wind. Granted, these devices have done some great things for our industry. But let's face it, for the past couple of years, they have also been a huge pain in our backside. I don't know what was worse, the large-scale bragging about what DVRs could do (mostly to cover up what they couldn't do), or the number of computer geek manufacturers coming out of the woodwork with a new unit to look at every 30 days. The good news is, the trend is finally twisting away from the overrated, under-built units of the opportunist and ending up in the hands of a smaller number of survivor geek manufacturers that are finally getting the design right.

The second half of the storage trend is that wary end users and designers are tired of stacking DVRs to get a single recording solution. They are also tired of spending huge amounts of money to come up with a simple hard drive. As a result, they are buying stock hard drives and working with digital organizational manufacturers that are offering single solutions to multiple-format integration problems. A huge step forward in an early developing industry. Will this trend continue? People are saving huge amounts of money, they're able to work with anyone's format, they can integrate new and existing technology and improve control features. Why wouldn't it continue?

All these trends show that the CCTV industry continues to take huge steps into the digital industrial industry. This is the only way it can go. However, buyer beware! We have only touched the surface of the subject. Prices will continue to stagger all over the board, and the technology will seem to take great leaps as opposed to slow, simple and steady forward motion.

Charlie Pierce is president of LeapFrog Training & Consulting, a company dedicated to training the professionals of the CCTV industry. Visit its Web site at www.LTCTrainingCntr.com.

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