IP video surveillance gets smart

Video content analytics aims to provide more effective surveillance – and not just for security applications, Tim Kridel reports on the opportunities for integrators.

A surveillance camera trained on a street monitors a handful of people milling around, with cars pulling up every few minutes, people getting in and then driving off. Is there something criminal going on?

The short answer is, it depends. The location could be outside of a popular restaurant, with valet parking. Or it could be a place where prostitutes hawk their tawdry wares. Understanding the difference is one of the key tasks behind video content analytics (VCA), an emerging part of the surveillance industry.

“It’s growing quick, but it’s growing quick off of a really small base,” says Mark Kirstein, co-founder and president of Multimedia Intelligence, a U.S.-based research firm that tracks the
Internet Protocol (IP) video market. “It’s a niche segment.”

VCA is a subset of the IP video surveillance market, which centres around digital cameras networked together via IP rather than traditional, analogue equipment. Multimedia Intelligence estimates that the worldwide IP video surveillance market grew nearly 50 percent in 2007, to $500 million (€325 million). That’s a lucrative niche, which explains why so many vendors and AV integrators are targeting the space.

“Video analytics is one of the key technologies emerging in surveillance today,” says Steve Dauber, vice president of marketing at Vidient, an NEC Labs spin-off based in the United States. “Basically, it supplements human surveillance with ‘computer eyes’ that constantly watch for suspicious events and then alert the appropriate personnel. Video analytics can monitor for a whole range of suspicious behaviours, from loitering and intrusions at the perimeter to tailgating through secure doors.”

V stands for value and vigilance

Each vendor handles VCA differently, with the common denominator of collecting information about what’s going on in a camera’s field of view, analysing that information and then deciding whether there’s something going on that warrants alerting a human being, such as a security guard or police officer. That automation is part of VCA’s value proposition: the ability to monitor more places with fewer people.

Besides lower personnel costs, VCA also can reduce the chances that a crime or something else will slip past the people monitoring a wall of surveillance video feeds.

“It is well-established that human monitoring of video feeds cannot provide effective security in and of itself,” Dauber says. “A study by Sandia National Labs found that after only 20 minutes of watching and evaluating monitor screens, the attention of most individuals degenerates to well below acceptable levels. Video analytics provides dramatically better security because it is always vigilant.”

Other VCA vendors agree.

“The sheer amount of processing power required by humans to sit there, day in, day out, hour after hour, trying to decipher what could be a threat and what’s a false alarm,” says Richard Lewis, at Sony UK. “Humans being humans, our attention to detail tails off after an hour or so. These guys could be looking at 50, 60 streams of video.”

VCA also can be a plus for non-real-time surveillance.

“In settings where live viewing is not crucial, and there is a specific behaviour that matters, VCA can certainly result in fewer human resources,” says Frank Baitman, president of Petards, a surveillance-system vendor that’s the U.S. subsidiary of U.K.-based Petards Group. “For example, you could imagine a situation where there might be the need to screen all entrants to a secure vault over the past 24 hours, perhaps looking for unauthorised ‘tailgating.’ Rather than fast-forwarding through 24 hours of video, motion detection analytics that are tied to an access control system could enable a single surveillance team member to view all entrants, compressed over a matter of minutes.”

Some vendors argue that VCA can be more effective – and cost-effective – than incumbent technologies.

“A better way to look at cost savings is to compare analytics with other types of commonly used security sensors, such as fence and microwave sensors,” Dauber says. “In general, analytics provides a superior result at a lower cost than these more traditional solutions.”

Boxed in

VCA products such as Sony’s provide users with a set of filters and other tools that let them configure the system to distinguish between, for example, a robbery and an innocuous activity.

Suppose that a camera is monitoring the back door of an office building that’s being remodelled. The system could be configured to ignore people carrying out large objects during business hours, with the assumption that they’re probably construction workers hauling out tools. But that same configuration could go into a different mode at night, when people carrying things out the door at 2 a.m. is probably burglary in progress – meaning that the system should send an alert to security.

The basic VCA concept revolves around metadata, which is information about information.

“The camera sort of draws a box around that moving area, and the size of that box, the speed that it’s moving, it’s all fed as metadata,” says Sony’s Lewis.

That metadata could show that a briefcase was left unattended in a rail station, indicating a possible bomb, or that a convenience store patron has walked behind the counter, indicating a possible robbery. The sophistication of the metadata analysis – which determines the number of false alarms and missed crimes – is one way that vendors can differentiate their products in an increasingly crowded market.

“There are a lot of software companies coming at it from a lot of different perspectives, and all of the mainstream legacy players are trying to position some level of VCA,” says Multimedia Intelligence’s Kirstein. “Considering how many units are getting licensed [sold], it’s very overcrowded. We’ve seen a little bit of consolidation. There’s probably not room for more than a handful of standalone vendors. Right now, there’s probably 12.”

Know your suppliers . . . and IP

For AV integrators, the crowded vendor field highlights the importance of picking suppliers carefully: Kirstein anticipates more mergers, acquisitions and possibly even flame-outs, and the last thing an integrator wants is a warehouse or customer base full of gear from a vendor that’s no longer around to support it.

Ease of configuration is another factor when picking a vendor.

“The analytics market is filled with companies that all make similar claims,” says Vidient’s Dauber. “It is key to recognise that analytics almost always need to be tuned for a customer’s specific environment. It is imperative to work with a vendor whose products and services enable this level of customised configuration. Otherwise, the customer is likely to be dissatisfied.”

Another success factor is knowledge of IP networking, which is used to connect VCA cameras and their support systems. That includes IP over wireless technologies, such as 802.11 Wi-Fi and, eventually, WiMAX.

“The traditional CCTV market will change dramatically and quickly — perhaps in the next 2-3 years — to fully embrace information and communication technologies (ICT),” says Petards’ Baitman. “Driven by the economics of ICT, we’ll begin to see CCTV exploit the inherent intelligence of IT systems, and networks built upon the TCP/IP protocol suite.”

Some vendors say that the shift to IP is already well underway, even before VCA broke into the market.

“In Europe, there’s been a big push toward getting security video onto IP networks,” says Sony’s Lewis. “That’s been going for a good five years, if not more.”

So for AV integrators, one takeaway is that knowledge of IT networking basics are increasingly key when targeting the surveillance market. Fluency in IT lingo also can be helpful for building credibility in the eyes of a client’s IT staff, who don’t always understand that IP video has unique requirements.

“We’re noticing that a lot of the IT world doesn’t appreciate what a video waveform looks like,” Lewis says. “There’s a big call for education.”

Another takeaway is that as surveillance products shift toward an IP foundation, multi-vendor interoperability becomes easier – and, for clients, desirable.

“The Wild West that’s defined the video surveillance market will begin to be tamed,” Baitman says. “We’ll see industry standards emerge — again, driven by ICT — that allow users to pick and choose the equipment they want because it will be largely interoperable.”

Useful networking skills also include understanding when and where it makes sense to store surveillance video.

“Network architectures are changing,” Baitman says. “As processing and storage continue to fall in price and grow smaller in size, we’ll see growth in the number of edge-of-network devices. While they’re not likely to supplant centralised recording systems, there are settings where it makes sense to record, store and analyse video locally. Then positive matches or suspicious events can be relayed to remote surveillance personnel for action.”

Sony takes a similar view.

“If you try to record absolutely every second, there’s going to be a massive need for storage,” Lewis says. “[Customers] possibly have to change their habits. [Instead of] trying to record everything, be a little more scientific about how they capture what they need to record.”

From surveillance to sales

Today’s VCA end users span a wide variety of verticals, from airports to municipalities, as well as general enterprise. One nascent application is using VCA and other IP video systems to provide insights into the effectiveness of ads, including digital signage, and store layouts.

One example is Experian FootFall, an Irish company that provides retailers and transportation companies with information about patrons, such as the number that pass through an area. Experian has begun using Sony’s Distributed Enhanced Processing Architecture (DEPA) system to provide more accurate and more detailed information than conventional counting technologies allow.

Sony says that DEPA also could be used to collect demographic information about shoppers, such as whether women take a different path through a store than men, or whether members of one race seem to pay more attention to a display than those of other races.

“They’re very excited [about] seeing what new avenues they can pursue,” Lewis says of the response from retailers.

Some analysts agree that those applications have value but caution against pushing the envelope too far.

“People are definitely targeting this for retail applications, where you can count the number of people who enter or exit,” says Multimedia Intelligence’s Kirstein. “All of that goes into your ability to merchandise more effectively. Those are getting some traction in the retail space. The ability to tell gender and race, I think that’s a little premature, at least based on the feedback I’ve got.”

So for now, VCA and the overarching sector of IP video surveillance are walking a fine line between cutting edge and bleeding edge.

“I think the market has moved into the reality or simplification stage, where we’re taking less about what it could possibly do,” Kirstein says. “Now people are talking about reality: ‘What can we get up and running? What’s a real application that customers are willing to pay for?’”

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