Video In A Networked World
Video In A Networked World

Dec 1, 2004 12:00 PM

In late November, 18-year-old Ryan Cushing of Huntington, N.Y., threw a 20-pound turkey through the rear window of a car he was riding in, critically injuring the 44-year-old driver of another vehicle when the fowl bounced off the highway and smashed through her windshield. A police officer caught the suspect and five of his buddies by viewing video surveillance from a local Waldbaum's supermarket, where the teens had used a stolen credit card to buy food and CDs earlier that night.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a "moving picture" ! like those on video surveillance systems ! must be worth at least a million.

As a testament to its value, video surveillance is becoming quite commonplace. Many organizations still use traditional analog video surveillance systems, which are based on videotape. Increasingly, however, computerized ! or digital ! video is entering the surveillance scene, making it even faster and easier to capture courtroom-worthy evidence.

Customers at the leading edge of digital video surveillance are now blazing trails into two innovative technical areas: video over the Internet and remote cellular wireless access.

"Let's say I have an oil rig in a very far-off location. I can use video over the Internet to perform surveillance from wherever I am," says Lee Hirsch, vice president at Pixim Inc., a supplier of digital imaging systems.

On the wireless side, a company called SerVision is now testing its IVG-400 cellular surveillance system in Mexico with both DHL and PepsiCo, says Oren Yehezkely, vice president for product implementation. "Ruggedized" for in-vehicle use, the system uses cellular networks to deliver video to a choice of PCs or handheld PDAs.

The Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service (FPS) used LiveWave Inc.'s FirstView RoverCam Systems to perform mobile video surveillance at this year's Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention and Boston Red Sox victory parade.

Why are organizations turning to digital video? For one thing, unlike analog video, which must be viewed sequentially, digital video can be treated much as any other computer data. It is almost like the difference between doing a quick search for facts over the Web from a home PC vs. the time it might take to track down the same information on an old microfiche machine at the library.

Just as importantly, instead of running on a separate dedicated network, digital video can be used on a main corporate network. There, it operates alongside word processing programs, accounting software and other PC applications used by employees, while conveniently sharing the same information security (IS) systems.

Typically, these networked IS functions include a firewall ! for filtering out spam and other unwanted communications from the Internet ! as well as user ID and password systems, for network "authorization" or access control ! and antivirus software.

In addition, network digital video systems also include their own special software programs, known as "algorithms," for encrypting (or scrambling) the video data, and for compressing (or shrinking) the images for easier transmission.

"Digital surveillance systems do tend to cost more than analog, though," Hirsch acknowledges. Essentially, digital video surveillance systems revolve around three main pieces: security cameras; PCs; and network video appliances such as digital video recorders (DVRs).

Some DVRs attach to PCs, whereas others are standalone devices with built-in (also known as "embedded") operating systems of their own. Standalone DVRs tend to be more reliable, and to produce better pictures, experts say. Alternatively, video can also be transmitted live directly from a PC, without the use of a DVR.

DVRs, however, allow for extra flexibility. Video captured on a DVR can either be saved for review ! in the event that security staff or police need to look at it later ! or "streamed" out to viewers over the network

DVRs can be used either with traditional analog video cameras ! augmented by a video server or some other analog-digital conversion method ! or with newer types of digitally-enabled "network" cameras. Some companies use combinations of both sorts of cameras.

Other network video appliances are out there, too. For example, departments of transportation in the states of New York, Florida, Utah and California are using appliances from VBrick Systems for broadcast-quality video surveillance of highway traffic. Devices are available with an optional 60-gigabyte hard drive for storing and forwarding video.

More typically, however, digital video surveillance systems are run over "wired" corporate local area networks (LANs), also referred to as intranets. Corporations have also started operating a number of other digital video applications on their intranets, ranging from computer training sessions to video-conferenced presentations from top company brass.

Generally, LAN-based surveillance systems do not achieve full-motion video speeds of 30 frames-per-second. Yet full-motion video is not always required for adequate surveillance, says Bob Laribeau, video analyst at Multimedia Market Research.

The speed and quality of video transmissions over corporate networks depends on factors that include the total "bandwidth" (or capacity) of the network, the amount of bandwidth being used by other software applications, and the numbers of employees who are accessing the network at any particular time.

Corporate networks typically range in bandwidth from about 10 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second. Generally, videoconferencing can be successfully achieved at the much smaller bandwidth of 384 kilobits per second, according to Laribeau.

"You wouldn't want to try to watch a hockey game at 384 kilobits per second. But it will usually give you good enough resolution for surveillance work," Laribeau says.

Still, some corporate video surveillance implementations today are getting much higher bandwidth by using special DVRs. These high-end DVRs are able to double as network switches, providing services to special sections of the network, known as subnets, which are used strictly for video recording.

Improvements are occurring in the camera arena, too. Camera manufacturers such as JVC, Baxall and Pelco have all adopted Pixim's Digital Pixel System (DPS) for capturing accurate images in "high contrast" environments with lots of lights and shadows. Pixim's technology converts images from analog to digital format directly at the point of video capture.

But when video is broadcast "outside the firewall" ! meaning over the Internet ! information security and image quality can get dicier. "Video surveillance is one type of content that you really want to keep out of the wrong hands," Hirsch says. Digital video is subject to all the same kinds of hack attacks as other data on the Internet.

One way to work around these IS issues is to use what is known as a virtual private network (VPN) for video transmission, he suggests. Essentially, a VPN is a private network that carves out software "tunnels" in the Internet for secure communications with remote locations.

In cellular network environments, on the other hand, remote access does tend to be highly secure. That's because the wireless carriers are in charge, says Kevin Day, chief technology advisor to SnoCone Systems Inc., another player in remote cellular access.

Yet image quality can also be compromised whenever video surveillance systems are being accessed remotely ! over the Internet, and even more so via cellular.

Organizations just do not have the same kind of bandwidth control when dealing with the Internet, as opposed to an intranet, according to Laribeau.

In contrast, cellular networks typically impose strict physical limitations on bandwidth. Although carriers are working to upgrade their networks, they generally do not have all that much bandwidth to spare.

But workarounds are available for this problem, too. For example, on its cellular surveillance system, SerVision uses MPEG compression ! together with proprietary compression algorithms ! to compress images at very high ratios of more than 50:1, says Gideon Tahan, the company's president and CEO.

According to the research firm Frost & Sullivan, the global network video market will reach $790 million by next year ! and by 2007, network cameras will make up more than half of the overall security camera market.

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