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Within the space of less than five years remote video surveillance via ordinary PSTN (public switched telephone network) phone lines, has become a practical proposition. Sending high quality video images down telephone lines, designed primarily to carry narrow bandwidth audio,  is no mean feat. It takes a lot of technology and we can thank on-going developments in image compression and digital processing for most of the advances in this area. Additional help has also come from an unexpected quarter, the internet has had a big part to play in refining video-by-phone, and sheer weight of numbers has done much to bring down the cost of the technology.


Various PSTN video transmission systems have appeared but this one from Omni Eyes has to be one of the most unusual. To begin with it is very compact, the cream-coloured console measures just 280 x 205 x 38mm, giving it a footprint that’s smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. Unlike most other systems, which require a dedicated transmitter and receiver units, all Omni-Eyes modules are the same. They are transceivers, which means they can send as well as receive images; this simplifies matters enormously, and makes the system a lot more flexible, when it comes to multi-site installations.


Each Omni Eyes unit can handle up to four monochrome video channels, plus control data, to remotely operate pan, tilt, zoom and focus functions. However, the latter functions are not yet available, they require an additional module, which will also have alarm facilities. Direct TV tell us there is still some work to be done before it can be approved for use in the UK, but it should be ready by September.


The case, controls and sockets are neatly laid out. There are four video inputs and one video output on the back panel, using  BNC sockets. Each video input has an associated video level or contrast control preset, accessed through a small hole adjacent to each camera socket. Power is supplied by an external 9 volt AC mains adaptor and the unit comes with a phone connector cable, fitted with a standard BT type phone plug. A 25 pin D-Sub socket handles control and communications to the optional PTZ/alarm module and there’s a pair of jack sockets, marked speaker and microphone, more about them in a moment.


The top panel has a membrane type keypad. On the left side there’s a set of numerical buttons, used to program telephone numbers and enter security codes. Two buttons, marked ‘CCD; for some inexplicable reason, are used to move the flashing cursor, when entering digits. In the middle there are the four camera selectors, designated A though D. Function and display keys, for selecting screen size and mode, are along the bottom edge of the panel, and on the right side are the buttons for controlling a pan/tilt head and focus. The main on/off switch is on the edge of the front panel;  it’s not a particularly good place for it as it can be inadvertently knocked.


The two-part case is fabricated from steel, it is solid and well built. Inside there are just two printed circuit boards. The one on the left looks very much like the innards of a standard PC modem. Along the front edge of the board there is a row of red LEDs, that show communications status, however these are not visible from the outside, there are no holes in the case. There’s not much more we can say about the modem, apart from the fact that it is reasonably fast, operating at 33.6kbs, it uses a standard Rockwell chipset, and it was made in Taiwan.


We can tell you even less about the second PCB, which does all the video processing -- almost certainly based on JPEG compression. The only thing we can say for sure is that the manufacturers have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the identity of the chips they have used, to the extent that all identification markings have been physically removed, with a grinding wheel!



Omni-Eyes is exceptionally simple to use. The preliminary instructions take up less  than one side of a sheet of A4 paper, hopefully the final version will contain a little more background information, even so that’s all that’s needed to get it up and running. After switch on the unit goes through a brief boot-up and modem initialisation routine, during which the on-screen display appears, and an image from camera A, if connected. To access a remote Omni-Eyes transceiver from a ‘base-station’ the operator simply enters the remote unit’s telephone number and 6-digit security code. The modem picks up the line, dials and waits for the remote module to answer, the dial tone and data burst are heard through a small speaker on the modem. When the call is answered -- usually in less than one ring, the two units go through a brief handshake routine, all this takes around five seconds, after which the first picture starts to appear, scrolling down from the top of the screen. A full screen still image from default camera A takes less than one second to download.


Other cameras are selected by pressing the A, B, C or D buttons; all four can be viewed at once by pressing the quad display key. Single full-screen and quad images are refreshed every 12 seconds, smaller quarter-screen images are updated every 3 seconds. The fastest refresh rate is around 1.5 seconds, for what are called ‘eighth-screen’ images, though the picture is actually the same size as a quarter-screen display, it is quite blocky and really only suitable only for detecting movement.  


It is possible to update just a small portion of a full screen image once a second -- a door or high security area for example -- by moving a highlighted cursor on the screen.



We tested our sample at a South London location using a set of four test cameras installed by Direct CCTV in Middlesborough. In theory the remote site could be anywhere, even overseas,  provided there’s a reasonably good quality phone connection. Image quality is very good, we estimated the system is capable of resolving around  200 lines on a static full screen image, noise levels are very low indeed. The contrast range appears to be a little narrower, compared with a direct feed, though a lot depends on the type of camera used. At least one of our test cameras was budget board-type module, which also gave a perfectly acceptable image, so all things considered performance is very impressive.



Omni-Eyes is a most remarkable product, that ably demonstrates the potential of remote video surveillance via ordinary telephone lines. The price is very competitive indeed and the technology works brilliantly well, but there are one or two practical points to consider.


The first one is the current lack of any alarm inputs, which does limit its usefulness as a stand-alone security tool. As it is the user has to manually dial up the remote site to view the images. Clearly it would be uneconomic to maintain a permanent or even semi-permanent connection, at normal BT rates. This confines it to non-critical spot or random monitoring, without an alarm facility it is no use whatsoever for intruder detection.


The second point concerns the apparent lack of any autodialing facility. At least there’s no mention of one in the instruction sheet. Whilst it’s not too arduous to enter a single number and security code, every so often, it becomes a chore if it has to be done on a regular basis, and would become a nuisance if there were more than one site to access.


Lastly, we feel more could be made of the local camera inputs. An Omni-Eyes transceiver could  effectively become a quad switcher unit during the day, when premises are occupied. For some inexplicable reason the functions to display camera inputs --other than camera A -- either singly or in quad format, appear to have been disabled or more likely, not exploited. Enabling those functions, even if it meant adding a few components or modifying the software -- with a consequent increase in price -- would be really worthwhile and transform what is already an extremely impressive product into a serious multi-role device with enormous potential for small to medium scale installations.


On the evidence so far Omni-Eyes has much to commend it, but we’ll reserve final judgement until we’ve seen the optional alarm and PTZ modules. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that if they work as well as the main unit, and are as competitively priced, this could herald a big breakthrough for remote video surveillance.   



Design and design features              ****

Circuitry and components                  ****

Ease of installation and wiring    *****  

Range and variety of functions            ***    

Accompanying instructions                   ***                              

Technical advice and backup            ****     

Value for money                         *****                           




Ó R.Maybury 1998 0601



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