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JVC VN-C3U NETWORK CAMERA

 

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Computers continue to play an increasingly important role in video surveillance, though to date it has been mostly confined to control, support and peripheral applications. JVC’s ‘V.Networks’ technology moves the PC much closer to the action and provides us with an intriguing foretaste of things to come.

 

We’ve been looking at the VN-C3U network camera and its associated control software, which turns any reasonably up to date network-capable Windows PC (95/98/NT etc.) into a powerful surveillance tool in its own right. The VN-C3U is one of a number of recently introduced ‘network’ cameras from JVC, this the most sophisticated model with the camera mounted on a remotely controllable pan/tilt mechanism. The camera also has a remote zoom function, position memory, two alarm inputs and the control software has still capture and recording facilities. However, before we get too involved with the nuts and bolts, a few words on what it does and how it all works.

 

The concept is simple enough, just plug a VN-C3U camera into a suitable LAN hub, dial-up router or directly into a network-equipped PC and you can remotely monitor the camera location from the PC desktop. Depending on the size and structure of the network the camera and control/monitor PC could be in the same office or building, or separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. The LAN ‘environment’ used by the VN-3CU is the 10Base-T fast Ethernet standard, which benefits from being very widely used, flexible and robust. It uses relatively simple cabling and configuration can be quite simple. As an added bonus Ethernet adaptors are now fitted to a growing number of PC motherboards as standard.

 

A network camera and control system has a number of advantages over a conventional analogue CCTV set-up. The most obvious one is remote or distant operation, without the need for any additional cabling. This also makes it very flexible, cameras can be easily added and removed from the system, and being PC based there’s no need for any additional hardware. The downside, at this very early stage of the game, is image quality and bandwidth. Network technologies – such as Ethernet – and digital video processing systems simply cannot match the performance of coaxial cable and analogue video. The bottom line is that images are not as detailed or fluid but in many applications the compromises are perfectly acceptable and more than compensated for by the system’s flexibility.

 

It’s time for a closer look at the hardware. The business end of the VN-3CU is a colour camera based around a 1/3-inch CCD with a 300k pixel array. It has a F1.8 lens with a 10x optical zoom (5.8 to 58mm focal range). The system has provision for three preset resolution setting (160 x 120, 320 x 240 and 640 x 480 pixels). Picture data is processed using JPEG compression and display rates are variable at between 5 and 30 frames per second. The camera is mounted on a compact pan/tilt platform giving 320-degree pan and 90-degrees tilt ranges, both at up to 100 degrees per second. The unit is designed to be ceiling mounted though there’s an image inversion facility, which allows for alternative mounting arrangements. Connections to the outside world couldn’t be simpler, it requires a 12 volt DC power supply, via a set of screw terminals, two-way data goes via a standard 10Base-T port (RJ45 connectors) patch lead to a network hub, or direct to a PC using a ‘crossed’ cable. Alarm inputs and output are carried on a set of spring contacts.

 

The camera unit weighs in at just 730g and is mostly constructed from high-impact ABS plastic. It looks and feels reasonably robust though in the absence of a protective housing it needs to be mounted well out of reach.

 

Software installation is reasonably straightforward; for the record the minimum PC specification calls for a 133MHz Pentium/Pentium class PC (preferably faster) with at least 32Mb RAM (64Mb recommended), 20Mb hard disc space and 10Base-T LAN capability. It’s designed to run under Windows 95, 98 or NT. Out tests were conducted using a 500MHz Athlon PC and Windows ME, using a direct connection to the camera via a cross-wired cable.

 

Prior to installing the software the PC’s network connection has to be configured with an IP (Internet Protocol) address; this procedure is clearly explained in the generally easy to follow instruction manual. The software is loaded from a CD-ROM and on our test rig it look less than a minute to install, after that it’s necessary to run a second configuration utility from the CD-ROM, enter the IP address, identify the camera and carry out preliminary adjustments, such as setting the image view (normal or upside down), set flicker frequency (50 or 60Hz) and set up a password, if required. The initial setup also covers the basic alarm functions and actions (send/receive over network, go to preset position, relay etc).

 

When that’s done the ‘Controller’ software can be run and the connection with the camera established, if all’s well this only takes a few seconds. The Controller opens with two windows: the main control panel and the display screen, the size of the latter depends on the resolution; the midway 320 x 240 setting is usually the best compromise for screen area and visibility. In addition to showing the camera image the display window can also be used to control pan and tilt, by clicking the mouse pointer into the sides or corners of the picture.

 

The control window is divided into three main areas. On the right is the camera ID/selector drop-down menu and a row of ten preset position buttons. To the right of that are the PTZ and zoom controls, and at the bottom of the window are the video recording and still/snapshot keys. Other functions are accessed from a set of drop down menus.

 

The Setting menu is the most important and this contains sub-menus for adjusting picture quality and compression rate (high, medium or low), saturation and colour balance and manual/auto gain, contrast and brightness. The frame rate sub-menu also has a direct bearing on image quality though in practice it is largely determined by the capabilities of the network and the PC. Position memory is used to store camera position and zoom settings. The Lens menu covers auto/manual iris, auto/manual focus and zoom position. Alarm settings control alarm responses on the PC (pop-up message, recording start, play wav (sound) file or execute a program file), and the Time Stamp option superimposes time and date information on the image (7 display styles are available).

 

The recording function can be enabled at any time, clicking on the Record button automatically opens a new file, identified by time and date. Still or snapshot recording allows up to 16 images to be captured at a time, after which they have to be named and saved, otherwise the ‘Snapshot’ button is greyed out. Video playback is easy with speed and direction control available using a standard Windows-type progress bar. Video recording – even relatively low resolution material such as this -- uses up vast amounts of disc space, between 6 and 10Mb per minute, though much depends on the quality settings, resolution and frame rate. Long term or continuous recording is only an option on PCs fitted with very large hard disc drives.

 

PERFORMANCE

Pan/tilt action under preset control is smooth and fast, manual control, using the direction buttons on the screen, or by clicking into the display window, is disappointingly jerky. Each mouse click moves the PT mount in preset increments and this has an impact on the image, which judders in sympathy when the camera moves, making it difficult to follow a moving subject or object. Ironically zoom action is continuous and much easier to control.

 

In comparison with a typical analogue video system picture quality is very average. There’s a reduction in the amount of fine detail, colours are coarse and the picture can be quite noisy. Nevertheless, in good light it is capable of producing useable images and the camera’s exposure and white balance systems cope reasonably well with changing lighting levels. The auto focus lens is also quite fast and responsive and only needs manual intervention in low light situations.

 

SUMMARY

Network camera technology is improving all the time and clearly has a bright future, particularly with the growth in fast broadband systems. However, current network systems impose significant limitations on picture quality but against that must be weighed the simplicity and flexibility of installation, and valuable features, like ease of use and still and video recording. We suspect there are plenty of situations, retail premises and offices for example, with existing PC networks, where a trade off of image quality against convenience is acceptable.

 

PRODUCT SPECIFICATION

 

Power supply              12 VDC

Weight                        730 g

Dimensions                 122 x 82 x 97mm

 

PSI RATINGS

 

Product                      

Product design             8

Build quality                           8

Ruggedness                            8

 

Operation                  

General functions                     8

CCTV functions                     7         

Ease of use                             7

Instructions                            7

Manuf. support                        ?         

Performance                           7

Video quality                          7

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000 0611

 

 


 

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