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Video surveillance is a remarkably conservative business and heavily reliant on technology that by current consumer electronics standards is decidedly old hat. Pictures from many multi-camera CCTV setups are scanned only infrequently, often by bored, underpaid operators suffering from ‘monitor fatigue’ and more often than not the images go unrecorded. Even when they are it’s often on an ancient low-resolution time-lapse VCR long overdue for a service. Judging by the quality of those jerky, grainy security camera videos you see on Crimewatch and news bulletins it’s likely that most villains mothers would have a hard time recognising their own offspring... 


Maybe not for much longer, there’s a definite buzz running through the industry at the moment and everyone who’s anyone is talking about ‘IP’. That’s short for Internet Protocol, it promises nothing short of a revolution for the surveillance industry and not just for law enforcement and big-time operators in the public and private sectors but for everyone who wants to keep an eye on their property and personal safety.


Traditional video surveillance mostly depends on cameras connected by wires to a nearby monitoring centre or operations room. On large sites where the cameras are a long way from the monitoring station, or where cabling would be impractical or uneconomic video signals can be transmitted by wireless link or microwave but for the most part, when you see a security camera you can be fairly sure that if anyone is watching they’re probably not too far away.


IP changes all that, instead of video signals from CCTV cameras going more or less directly to a monitor screen they’re fed into a computer, which converts the pictures into a stream of digital data. Once a video image enters the digital domain many interesting things can be done with it – more on that in a moment – but the key benefit is that pictures can more easily recorded, at higher quality, and distributed over a local area network or onto the mother of all networks, the Internet. Once on the web they can be viewed on a PC, anywhere in the world with the appropriate software and access to a telephone line.


Everyone involved with video surveillance, from the companies selling and installing the equipment, to end users, are getting very excited about IP because it frees them from the expense and complexity of setting up dedicated on-site monitoring facilities. There are other advantages too, because IP systems can use existing computer networks there’s a big cost advantage. Recording and archiving recordings is a lot easier too; video is stored on a hard disc drives, the image quality is potentially better than video tape, it doesn’t degrade with repeated playback and it’s easier to find a specific event or image on a recording, compared with wading through piles of VHS tapes.


With IP surveillance monitoring of remote sites can be handled centrally, or carried out automatically, by the server computers processing the images. At a corporate level that means a large company can consolidate its security operations for several widely separated locations into one monitoring station, and because images can be more easily distributed, security staff can be deployed more effectively throughout the company. IP surveillance is not just for big business though; companies are already springing up offering remote video surveillance services for small companies, shops and residential property.


All good stuff but perhaps the most interesting spin offs from IP are automated surveillance and alarm systems. Basically that means doing away with the fallible, forgetful and easily distracted human element.


The computer software used in IP systems has been steadily evolving and many programs now incorporate advanced motion detection facilities. A CCTV camera image of a corridor or doorway, for example, can be monitored constantly by the system – uninterrupted by tea or comfort breaks – and the system programmed only to respond to unexpected events, such as someone opening or closing the door when the house or office is supposed to be unoccupied.


Most motion detector routines can also be programmed only to respond to movement in specified parts of the image area, and to ignore random or natural movement. In other words if the camera is looking at an outdoor scene, such as a car-park, the movement of trees or leaves blowing in the wind, or small animals crossing in front of the camera will not trigger an alarm but a person walking or even skulking around the area would flag up an alert.


Incidentally, motion detection is not new and it has been available on conventional analogue CCTV systems for several years and it is often used to trigger a recording device such as a time lapse VCR. However that usually means the recording device will only capture in detail what’s happened after the alarm has been activated whereas on an IP system -- which is recording all of the time -- the events that led up to the alarm being triggered are also captured and flagged up for an operator to review.


Unlike the movies most alarm systems operate silently when triggered and this is another area where IP systems have an advantage. Since they are already connected to a network or the Internet they can send out alerts using a variety of methods. Messages and images can be flashed up on monitoring screens within a local area network. Systems can be programmed to automatically send out an email, in some cases with still images of the event as attachments. Other possibilities include direct dialling a telephone number and replaying a pre-recorded message and sending an SMS text messages or emails to a mobile phone. 


IP security and surveillance is still a work in progress and there’s still plenty to come, including a made in heaven marriage between IP technology and the next generation of 3G mobile phones, which have a video streaming capability, so you’ll be able to watch villains ransacking your home whilst you’re sunning yourself on a Mediterranean beach, now that’s progress…




Ó R. Maybury 2002, 2211





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