Is 4K a quantum leap or minor step for video surveillance?

Sept. 11, 2015
New camera technology presents a variety of opportunities, challenges

In the field of interactive surveillance, that loud noise you’re hearing is the buzz around 4K – next generation ultra-high definition (UHD) camera technology. The latest evolution in broadcast and media resolutions, 4K is replacing 1080p as the highest-resolution video signal available. But since we’re just beginning to implement 4K technology in the surveillance industry, it’s going to take some time to get a firm handle on what the real benefits are going to be on a day-to-day basis. 

Setting the 4K Scene

When we’re talking about 4K technology and what it means, we’re essentially talking about more pixels – 8 megapixels, to be exact. The larger the megapixel total, the higher the image resolution. With 3840 x 2160 resolution, 4K cameras provide much clearer and crisper pictures with more vibrant and colorful images.

So what do these additional megapixels do for us from a security standpoint? First, in terms of observation security – monitoring the exterior of the customer’s building – 4K allows us to get more pixels on a security target from a distance. The more pixels, the more easily our analytics can detect activity. The key to video surveillance analytics is what’s on the edge of the field of view. If we have more pixels at the edge of the camera’s field of focus, then our analytics have a better chance of generating more alarms.

But this additional pixel capability can lead to an observational challenge – limiting the number of false alarms. More pixels, and more detail, can mean more opportunity for video analytics to alarm on things that are not actually potential threats. Because analytics are looking for pixel changes in a particular field of view, something as harmless as trees blowing in the wind could trigger an alarm. That’s why video surveillance providers are always working hard to fine tune analytics. If we are flooding our central station with alarms, then we are reducing our ability to respond to the real threats. With 4K cameras, calibration and fine tuning of analytical rules will be essential to keep the central station from being overwhelmed with alarms.

The other side of video surveillance is forensic security, which is usually performed after the fact and is not alarm-driven. Forensically, we are looking to help the customer diagnose security issues that are outside the scope of active surveillance by looking through video archives to detect certain activity or events, as opposed to looking for on-screen alarms.

The more detail, the better.  Take a service lane camera used by auto dealers to examine cars for pre-existing damage, for example. 4K cameras will be able to pick up minor damage and scratches much better than the current system. This will be very beneficial for auto dealers in reassuring they will not miss any damage. Just as auto dealers are looking to avoid costly false claims against damage, employee error/activity is another costly occurrence they look to avoid. If we’re running interior cameras at an auto dealership, 4K technology will more clearly show employee activity (including better detail on faces), allowing the employer to quickly identify suspicious employee activity.

4K Surveillance Applications

4K technology seems particularly well-suited to customers running auto dealerships and equipment yards, again because of the importance of the camera’s edge-of-view. At these sites, cameras don’t have an open field of vision; instead, we’re looking at parking lots full of vehicles where people can potentially hide. In these situations, alarming analytics may not work as intended because if a person is half concealed as there might not be enough pixels on the target to trigger an alarm. With a 4K camera, we are much more likely to trigger an alarm from a person walking between two vehicles.

Interior cameras, meanwhile, are utilized mostly by customers, not by the surveillance provider. Customers are looking at employee activity going on in view of the camera, in order to detect things like cash disappearing from a register, locating tools and equipment that have been moved around, or to examine vehicle damage on the lot. This type of forensic analysis is much easier with the digital zoom function on 4K cameras, which will be able to tell if car #1 actually hit car #2, or just came close. Digital zoom gets less clear as you get closer, but with 4K you lose much less clarity. You can even zoom in on a person’s hand with far less degradation of the image. 

4K Implementation: Challenge and Opportunity

A significant challenge related to implementing a 4K camera surveillance installation is building the infrastructure backbone. This involves both storage capacity on network video recorders (NVRs) and network bandwidth to support 4K video streaming. From a storage standpoint, 4K recording requires three times the storage capacity of a 2-megapixel camera. At the same time, streaming a 4K camera requires considerably more bandwidth.  If the security provider is using the customer’s network for its security solution, 4K cameras could consume available bandwidth needed for other customer network functions. They will need to work closely with these customers to provide a solution that does not interfere with the customers’ day-to-day operations.  Providers who are using their own circuits will need to upgrade them to handle more bandwidth.

Without a doubt, the largest opportunity resulting from a 4K camera deployment is fewer missed incidents thanks to better analytics related to greater image resolution. Another significant advantage, which has nothing to do with security, is the customer “wow” factor. When customers look at a dingy security camera picture, they may tend to think that the system is not all that effective. But when we show a customer a 4K picture, the tendency is for them to feel more secure because the image is so much clearer and detailed. As in any business, having a happy customer makes our job of providing security that much easier.

4K Operational Tips

  • Size your NVR sufficiently from a storage standpoint to account for the number of 4K cameras to be installed.
  • To take full advantage of 4K technology, install 4K monitors on the backend of the system. Otherwise, with a degraded monitor, the image is the equivalent of a 2-megapixel camera. Looking at a high-resolution image on a low-resolution monitor throttles the video feed down to match the monitor.
  • Make sure the network the 4K system is running on has sufficient bandwidth to handle the video streams. In addition, straighten out all connectivity issues to ensure clean connections throughout the system.
  • Expect sharply higher 4K costs, not only for the cameras themselves but also for the increased bandwidth and video storage capacity. Currently, 4K cameras are at least twice as expensive as 2-megapixel cameras. As the market becomes more saturated with 4K products, our expectation is that the cost will continue to come down.
  • Because of the higher costs associated with 4K cameras and the upgraded infrastructure, security providers need to be very detailed and systematic about where the cameras are utilized. This includes being highly analytical about each field of view, to determine if it lends itself to 4K or 2 megapixels. For short distance throws, and standard interior views, our suggestion is to stick with 2-megapixel cameras. The result will be a blended installation that will evolve over time until 4K becomes the industry standard.
  • Be prepared for possible service and technical support headaches. 4K technology, after all, is soup-to-nuts new, requiring an all-new manufacturing build-out. For example, in order to run analytics on a 4K image, the analytics manufacturer has to put in new processors that can handle a higher load. Like any new technology on new manufacturing runs, we expect that bad cameras will be built that will have to be replaced until the manufacturing line becomes more mature and the quality improves.

What Next?

In the video surveillance industry, 4K camera technology has to be integrated into a larger system that includes alarm systems and recording software. From an integration perspective, the industry is just now starting to move in the direction of 4K. Even though this is clearly the wave of the future, our take is that the security industry is not ready to dive head first into the 4K pool. Secondary systems are still playing catch up, with plenty of kinks needed to be worked out as time and technological capability continue to evolve. 

Our advice to security tech executives is to proactively start assessing 4K technology, if you haven’t already started doing so. You will need to develop a clear plan for taking this to market and begin to realize the host of benefits 4K technology and cameras deliver once implemented in the field.

About the Author: Mark Vickerman is Chief Technology Officer at Eyewitness Surveillance. Based in Hanover, Md., Eyewitness provides innovative and cutting-edge security and operational solutions for commercial construction companies and other businesses that maintain outdoor equipment storage yards. For more information, please visit  

About the Author

Mark Vickerman | Chief Technology Officer, Eyewitness Surveillance

Mark Vickerman is Chief Technology Officer at Eyewitness Surveillance. Based in Hanover, Md., Eyewitness provides innovative and cutting-edge security and operational solutions for commercial construction companies and other businesses that maintain outdoor equipment storage yards.