Dec 1, 2001 12:00 PM

Fifty years ago, the industrial closed circuit video camera was the precursor to an industry that is just now coming of age. Today, the industry is ready to take on the modern world.

As recently as 10 years ago, the CCTV camera had not displayed much change as compared with its great grandparents of the 1950s and '60s. In fact, there were few significant changes for more than 40 years. In the past 10 years, however, we have witnessed the introduction, application, and mass production of change, both in appearance and in all steps of the process.

When I was first introduced to this great industry, there were five different cameras ! the Standard Vidicon, Ultracon, Newvicon, SIT (Silicone Intensified Target), and the ISIT (Intensified Silicone Intensified Target). It was common then to perform "side-by-side" playoff comparisons of the various cameras. We knew so little that we had to put two cameras up and compare the actual pictures. Shortly, we became so good at the tube camera that we didn't need to compare anymore. We walked into a room, knew what to use, and what the potential results were.

In those days, video switchers were simple. You ran the cable home to a box and pushed a button or flipped a switch and you had a picture. Pan/tilts were no problem ! there were basically four types (light duty, medium duty, heavy duty, and extra-heavy duty). They all required an eight-wire cable, home run to the controller. Monitors were black-and-white, 9 inches or 12 inches. It just couldn't get easier.

Service was always a shot in the dark. If the picture had a squabble of noise while the camera panned back and forth, it was a cable or connector. If a bright light caused the picture to wash out, the tube was bad or maybe the beam needed tweaking. Customers needed service calls every three months for tweaks and turns and every six months to re-verify the system.

Installation was an adventure. Extensive hard wiring for the controls made me feel like I knew what I was doing. When the system worked, life was good. When the system didn't work, it drove me crazy.

Lenses were the simple mystery behind the camera ! we knew they focused the picture, we just didn't know how. We knew about the iris, but we weren't quite sure if we needed it, let alone how to properly adjust and balance it to the camera. It was a big adventure that caused most of us to become complacent and secure within our knowledge bases. If you had anyone within your organization capable of performing the magic of CCTV, you had an expert.

Repair statistics indicate the failure-rate of equipment right out of the box is impressive as compared to the past 10 years. Ten years ago, we could count on a 2.5-percent failure rate of cameras. Five years ago, it was 0.75 percent, and today, it's close to 0.5 percent. Ten years ago, you could expect to spend nearly $3,000 for a time-lapse video recorder. Today, it's less than $1,000. Factor in that contemporary recorders are 100 percent solid state ! with no moving parts ! and the CCTV revolution is clear.

The industry is constantly improving, yet, in some ways, it is walking backward, which may be a necessary evil of growth and development. New chip cameras are being produced so quickly and with so much change, it's difficult to keep up. Manufacturers put pressure on themselves and competitors by inventing new options and selling them for less. In the CCTV industry, more technology can cost less. That is not necessarily a good thing.

There is good news coming out of the confusion. The sensitivity of the cameras ! both black/white and color ! has increased significantly. Because of this, we are able to see in less light, for less cost, with better results and consistency.

But confusion still seems to be driving our market. Companies that once excelled at producing one or two high-quality products with large profit margins have pushed themselves into the positions of being system integrators. These companies are working now to become everything to every situation with smaller profit margins and larger inventories. In the outside world, after all these years, more and more people are realizing that CCTV is not just for security. The applications and possibilities are astounding.

Need to see inside the human heart while you operate? Use a chip camera and a fiber-optic lens. (I had this done to me just last year while I watched). Need to inspect inside a tanker truck or grain bin without taking the chance on human life? Send in a camera with remote control and infrared lighting. Need to verify the arrest of a drunk driver? Attach a camera to your car and produce a video at the court hearing. Want security? Tie a camera into your access control system and have a picture of the person using the card ! or easier still, plug the camera directly into your PC or MAC and let the computer do the rest.

From a security viewpoint, CCTV is finally being accepted as the legitimate child of security. But ethical objections have CCTV in the middle of legal and privacy battles. Today's courtroom battles will eventually decide whether cameras can be used in open areas (city streets, corners, backyards, your neighborhood, etc.), not just in security departments.

Forty years ago, CCTV customers were primarily government applications. Twenty years ago, industry started using the camera to assist in guard services. Fifteen years ago, retailers started looking at the prospects of using cameras to combat loss and theft. Ten years ago, CCTV moved into convenience stores and mom-and-pop shops, airports, parking terminals and shopping malls. Five years ago, we started working on higher-priced homes around the country. Today, CCTV is on city streets and in public domains all over the world. Cameras have become so affordable, small and easy that systems are being installed regularly by the average "do-it-yourselfer." Unfortunately, the rise of the do-it-yourself customer means "trunk slammers" are moving into our industry, drawn by the smell of opportunity and false profits.

Over the past five years, digital imaging has enabled us to drop the lens. It may not be a common feature yet, but it is only a short time away. I predict more 360-degree images with specific digital zoom and scanning doing the work of pan/tilts and lenses in the next five years.

The future of pan/tilt is still difficult to predict. Right now there is so much battle being done over which of the current five methods of moving the camera is best, that I think we will have a twist ending. You would have thought that the mechanical beasts would have died by now or at least been completely replaced by the enclosed unit ! not true. They just keep getting smaller and smaller. Five to seven more years of life as an auto-pan and these quiet beasts of burden will be completely replaced as well.

All in all, the systems are moving so fast that now there is confusion where once there was comfort and familiarity. This should be short-lived, as the various security organizations, working in conjunction with local and federal governments, create certification training, testing, and titles. It shouldn't be much longer before an end-user can actually ask for specific credentials prior to purchase ! credentials that can be verified as original and real.

When the dust settles, the customer will wind up as the big winner. Competition is the mother of invention. I am more concerned than ever about the rights and privacy of individuals around the world being invaded and abused by a small force. Thus, we must join with those working hard on various privacy task forces and committees to educate and guide Congress and lawmakers in being careful about the laws on visual evidence. The issue is, after all, at the heart of the future of our industry.

Charlie R. Pierce, president of LRC Electronics, Davenport, Iowa, is a leading authority on CCTV and a regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems.

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