Oct 1, 2002 12:00 PM

New York's Empire State Building was the site of one of the first documented uses of CCTV video surveillance in the late 1960s. Video cameras captured images of several elevators and the observation deck in live-feed format that wasn't recorded.

Ever since, video cameras, and later tape-based VCRs, have been successfully used to gather evidence and monitor facilities. Traditional time-lapse video recording allows a tape to run for days and sometimes weeks at a time, capturing brief video clips of events. With a multiplexer, a number of cameras can be recorded on one tape at the same time, offering cost savings and convenience. A three-hour video tape can contain more than half a million images, but users must contend with wear-and-tear, breakage and fuzzy images. The early 1990s saw the digital video recorder (DVR) introduced, and it has rapidly caught on around the world. The DVR, which basically substitutes a digital hard drive and computer technology for standard VHS videotape, has changed the world of video surveillance.

Recording images digitally has several advantages, including improved reliability, better image quality, real-time non-linear content access and compatability with other related digital systems. Many security manufacturers, including Hitachi, Tyco, Sanyo, Vicon, NICE and Mitsubishi have created easy-to-install, reliable and affordable DVRs. Indeed, DVRs have become an important part of an overall surveillance solution.

"Digital technology has expanded the applications of more traditional security equipment and provides users with greater access to the images captured and stored in a surveillance system," says Frank Abram, vice president at Panasonic Security Systems, Secaucus, N.J. "Digital technology has greatly enhanced the performance of surveillance equipment in virtually every product category. Additionally, digital technology employed on a network (or the Web), can be accessed from anywhere in the world and provide great flexibility to any security system."

To be effective, a video surveillance system must operate uninterrupted 365 days a year. Most CCTV installations depend on archived video recordings for a variety of reasons, including shoplifting incidents, slip-and-fall accidents, thefts, robberies and other crimes.

The importance of a good recording system is apparent to the end-user after a major event occurs. The failure of a tape-based system is usually discovered when a security incident is reviewed, for example if the image quality does not allow for a clear identification.

"Digital technology has had an immediate impact on reducing standard analog VCR sales," says Kerby Long, national sales manager for JVC's Video Imaging Systems Division, Wayne, N.J. "Due to the ability of a DVR to record at a higher resolution than a standard VCR, high-resolution camera sales have increased to complement the DVR's ability. The implementation of digital technology is expanding the use of video over network applications as well."

DVRs offer advantages traditional tape-based time-lapse VCRs cannot. DVRs allow live remote viewing and playback of recorded surveillance video via any Local Area Network (LAN) or the Web. And there's no tape to catalog and store. The ability of DVR-based systems to record and play back events at the same time, rather than having to stop a standard tape and rewind it when searching for an incident, is also an advantage.

"Digital technology has basically revolutionized the CCTV industry as it has added value to almost every product that makes up a CCTV system today," says Jim Murray, DVX product manager at Integral Technologies, Indianapolis. "Video is now remotely accessible. Never again will a security director have to sit in front of a VCR trying to see if someone actually changed the tapes as he searches for an event."

But it's the higher resolution and the more comprehensive intercommunication among security systems (with still frames of CCTV video being easily printed or e-mailed for distribution in-house or to law enforcement agencies) where DVR and digital technology rise to the top. Because the video or frame grab is just a digital file, not only can it be shared quickly and easily, but it can also be stamped and rapidly searched by time, date, incident type and location. Systems can also allow worldwide cross-platform viewing from a Web page. Digital video files can also be backed up, archived or transferred to other storage media such as CD-ROM, CD-RW or other media.

Acting essentially as a computer hard drive dedicated to recording video, many digital systems can be integrated with alarm or access systems to provide real-time recording if movement or an incident is detected.

Dan O'Bresky has been a Subway sandwich shop franchise owner for more than 13 years, with 16 locations in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Most of his locations use the Silent Witness DVMS400 digital recording system, while one uses the Silent Witness DVMS100 DVR. "Not only do DVRs provide the benefits of low maintenance and elimination of tape management, they also ensure that the quality of the video is there when you need it," O'Bresky says. "With a tape-based system, we had cases where we went to check the video after an incident only to find it wasn't clear or usable."

With better text insertion (putting text messages like date, time, location, type of transaction etc. on the video itself) O'Bresky has been able to tie-in the DVMS unit with his Point-of-Sale (POS) system (digital cash registers) to record transactions. "We've set up daily reports on no sales, refunds, cancellations and deletions so we can detect if there's any internal theft," he says. "We usually don't even need to watch the video when the printed report provides us with a list of how many [alarm] events have occurred."

O'Bresky also likes the DVR's remote management feature because it doesn't require him to drive to the store if there is an alarm at night. "I can easily log-in and assess the situation. If it's a false alarm, then I can call it in before the police are dispatched and not be charged a fee," he says. "It also allows me to check in during operation hours to make sure that everything is running smoothly."

Pre-planning the surveillance system before beginning the installation process was essential for O'Bresky. "Since I spent so much time doing research before I began the process, there were no surprises and I knew just what to look for in a DVR that would suit the needs of all my stores," he says. "The whole installation process went smoothly. The most difficult thing was setting up the text insertion, but even that installation was pretty straightforward."

The conversion to digital technology hasn't been limited to the U.S. The U.K. leads the world in video surveillance, with more public area under watch than any other country. In 1999 The Crime Reduction and Closed Circuit Television program initiative earmarked special funding for an upgrade of all surveillance systems to DVRs. All the cameras and DVRs are networked to a central monitoring facility in each location. In the very near future, England should have an all-digital, country-wide surveillance system. And the U.S. shouldn't be too far behind.

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a contributor to Access Control & Security Systems and also writes for SRO Magazine, a publication covering the stage and A/V rental markets.

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