Feb 1, 2003 12:00 PM

The security market abounds with digital solutions for casino surveillance applications. The scope of these solutions range from stand-alone digital recorders with varying numbers of inputs to complete enterprise systems operating on a network. Is this digital technology ready for the highly regulated casino surveillance industry?

According to top industry players, some digital technology is ready for casinos ! even the highly regulated casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City ! but various factors are keeping the casinos from going digital.

Recording speed and cost are two major inhibitions to the widespread use of digital surveillance equipment says Frank Abram, general manager of Panasonic Security Systems Group, Secaucus, N.J.

Today's casinos can be divided into two camps, each at a different stage of digital conversion. While the majority of Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos remain attached to their analog roots, Native American gaming casinos have opened their doors to digital technology.

The main reason for this division, Abram says, is that the major gaming commissions require surveillance departments for the gaming portion of the casinos to record in real-time ! at a minimum of 30 images per second.

"Unless you go to an enterprise system, the industry looks at digital recorders and compares them to a VCR, which records at 30 images per second. Therefore they cannot be put into the gaming end of the casino," Abram says.

"There aren't enough manufacturers out there who are providing a high frame rate and a high resolution to suit the industry," says Richard Mellott, product marketing manager of Bosch Security Systems. "There are some, but not enough."

Digital systems on the market today vary largely among manufacturers. The majority of surveillance cameras in the casino industry, while operating with digital components, still output in analog format. Most casinos continue to operate an analog infrastructure, using a network of co-axial cable to carry an analog signal to their matrix switches and banks of television monitors. When a technology company describes its installation of a digital system in a casino, most would mean that the casino is now recording its surveillance data on a digital recorder, rather than an analog VCR, and storing that data on a hard drive, rather than on video tapes.

High-end enterprise systems allow the recorders (often with more than 40 camera inputs) and the hard drives to be operated within a network. They often include support staff to help maintain that network. At the opposite end of the spectrum are digital recorders with one input, which simply mimic a VHS recorder but allow storage on a hard drive.

The benefits of digital surveillance to the casinos are clear: ease of use, convenience, the ability to network, the ability to quickly search data and improved picture quality. Digital recorders can eliminate hundreds or thousands of recorders, and allow almost instantaneous location and playback of recorded data. In the gaming surveillance area, where space is highly valued, larger digital recorders with more than 48 inputs are now only twice the size of a single VHS recorder. With the elimination of VHS recorders comes the elimination of VHS tapes and their high-service requirements.

With so many advantages, why aren't more casinos converting?

According to Abram and Mellott, cost remains a crucial obstacle to widespread conversion.

"From a recording standpoint, I don't believe the technology is ready ! based on a cost-benefit ratio at this particular point," Abram says. "The costs are rapidly coming down. I think the technology on a broad scale will be acceptable to the gaming industry shortly. But right now I believe the cost-benefit ratio is too high to be applicable."

Cost becomes very important, Abram says, if you consider the price of VHS devices the casinos currently use to record. Most casinos use VCRs that cost around $200; some even use consumer VCRs which have plummeted to $50 per unit. Compare this to digital recording devices which can cost $800 to $1,800 per input (and each camera equals an input), and the digital solution seems less attractive.

The Bally's and Paris casinos in Las Vegas are slated to convert to Bosch digital recorders in 2004. With 400 surveillance VCRs at Bally's and 550 surveillance VCRs at Paris, the cost of conversion is considerable, says Kim Sweeten, electronic manager for the two casinos. "It's very difficult for existing properties to switch to digital because there's so many VCRs involved," he says.

Proponents of digital, however, say the long-term cost benefits make up for the hefty initial investment.

"The cost of man-hours required for investigations, the maintenance costs for VCR's, the purchase of new VCR's, the purchase of tapes, the additional personnel required for management of tapes and tape changes all outweigh the costs of the digital solution," says Dave Dalleske, product manager, Integrated Systems, Pelco.

As the debate continues, only time will tell whether digital is the right solution, Abram says.

"There is absolutely no doubt the technology is ready for the gaming industry," Abrams says. "It is simply a matter of waiting several months for the cost to come down. I think you will see a sufficient cost decrease within the next 12 months that more and more casinos will be willing to do a cost-justification study on the product."

Mellott also foresees price drops in the future: "Within the next year or two years we will see projects moving seriously toward digital, and in the next three years we will see widespread use in the industry," he says. "This is all based on hard drive technology. A year ago we were pushing for an 80 GB hard drive. Now we can put 320 GB in the same footprint as that 80 GB. Overall, that's going to lower the long-term cost."

Technology suppliers also speculate the more traditional casinos are awaiting a blessing from the gaming commissions that govern them, or waiting for a pioneer to forge the new territory.

"The traditional casinos in Atlantic City and Vegas have not made up their mind. The few who have gone over to digital have kept their old analog system in place, almost as a back-up," says Aaron Chesler, North American director of sales in the video division of NICE Systems, Ra'anana, Israel.

"The common complaint (over the last few years) was that it's a new technology, and they don't want to take a chance," he continues. "The gaming area is high-security and they could literally have to close down the area if they cannot record."

According to Mike Cassell, supervisor of the enforcement division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the gaming commissions have not denounced or restricted use of digital technology specifically.

"We tell the casinos that we know it's the going thing and they can use it, but it must meet our minimum requirements, which have been in place for a long time," he says. The minimum requirements specify which areas must be covered by cameras and how long recorded material must be stored. As with all surveillance media, the casinos must be able to provide recorded proof in court.

One Las Vegas casino, the Sahara, converted to digital two years ago, but operates multiple digital recorders with single inputs, rather than an extensive enterprise system. Tom Shellabarger, director of surveillance for the Sahara, says he prefers the single input recorders because he is concerned about image degradation with multiple inputs. Digital security measures also create confidence, he says.

"That's the biggest question ! what are you going to do when you go to court," he explains. "Our system, (manufactured by Colby Systems) has a digital signature on each recorder so you cannot manipulate the image once it is recorded, and that was a big issue with the gaming board."

Still, Shellabarger hesitates to upgrade to a larger, more extensive system.

Similar reluctance characterizes the casino industry at this point, industry observers say. Shellabarger has isolated a key virtue of digital ! the ability to record to hard drive and access that information quickly and conveniently at a PC workstation. But he hesitates to trade the potential value of added workstations on a network for the potential inconvenience of such a transition.

The challenge of creating a completely digital system, with the ability to view data on multiple workstations, is the final barrier to widespread conversion, says Dalleske. "The major technical challenge is offering a complete system with one or more workstations where any operator can control video from any camera across the network," he says. "There are a number of digital recorders that can handle the recording speed requirements for a casino, but most are limited by a lack of system continuity."

In the foreseeable future, however, most companies will bridge this hurdle and at a cost casinos can more easily afford. Then the casinos will be faced with a decision.

Bosch's Mellott echoes this sentiment: "Over the past five years, digital has come around as a more advantageous product because of technological advances. Yes, digital is ready for the gaming industry. The question is really: 'Is the gaming industry ready to take the appropriate steps?'"
Corrina Stellitano is a Fairhope, Ala.-based writer and regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems.

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