Coverage, detail and complications as 4K cameras move forward


01/15/2016

Kenneth Z. Chutchian

Security experts saw 4K camera technology coming their way a decade ago. They saw the market slide from consumers to security around 2013-2014. They know 4K will grow in the surveillance field, but the variables—in supporting technology development and opportunity cost—make the immediate future of 4K unknown and unpredictable.

The most obvious adjustment needed for 4K end users is a planning and pro-active approach for the amount of bandwidth gobbled up by these cameras that offer the best of both worlds—a wide range of coverage with high-density image detail. In some cases, insiders say, “too good to be true” may in fact be too good to be practical or cost effective.

“End users will be thinking ‘how many cameras do I need?’ and ‘where is the breaking point?’” said Keith Drummond, senior director of sales at IDIS, a global security solutions company founded in 1997. “We have integrators in our office all the time. One of them (recently) said, ‘Over-engineering is not a good thing.’”

Decision-makers at companies making 4K cameras agree on the best potential applications for the technology—sports stadiums, critical infrastructure, parking lots, airports, retail, and high-risk surveillance areas, where the need for coverage as well as detail for license plates, facial recognition and signage call out for new technology and new applications.

But coverage and precision on this scale requires more than other camera technology.

“[The] 4K technology doesn’t provide value unless [the end user] puts all the components together,” said Drummond, who used high-definition cable TV as an analogy. Without the proper cable box or the right television, the cool new stuff is expensive and not very useful, he said.

Compression technology allows end users to pick and choose where and when they will employ 4K technology to its fullest potential or shift gears to use less bandwidth. Such solutions require “being smart about it,” Drummond said.

Another challenge facing the 4K camera market growth is the need for powerful lighting. Combined with the high bandwidth usage, “the challenge will be with integration … without breaking the bank,” said Brad Donaldson, director of product management at Arecont Vision, a mega pixel imaging and applications company headquartered in Glendale, California.

“That might take awhile,” Donaldson said.

Cost and storage demands are two more factors than can create hiccups in market growth. For several years now, 1080p cameras have been run at 720p when the situation calls for it. Likewise, 4K ultra-high definition cameras will run at 1080p in the absence of the right optics, encoders or displays.

On a positive note for 4K, Donaldson noted, “There’s a lot of new low-light technology out there” that should be applicable to surveillance. “Sensor technology has been making vast improvements.”

The first 4K camera, such as it was, appeared on the radar of security experts in 2004, according to Donaldson. He called it “a paper bag with a lens hanging out of it.”

Evolution did not take long. “We saw it creeping up more and more” to the point where 4K “was available [with] off-the-shelf designs,” Donaldson said.

The film industry led the way for application of 4K technology, said Doug Gray, senior product manger for Hikvision, a global supplier of video surveillance equipment, based in China, which designs, develops and manufactures standard and high-definition cameras.

The cool new movie theater technology generated consumer interest to bring the ultra-high-definition images to their homes, and television broadcast companies were more than happy to oblige. “Surveillance followed the consumer market,” said Gray, noting that Netflix and Amazon are now streaming 4K video online.

The security applications seem like a no-brainer—until problems of “too much information” emerge.

“You have a lot more information to deal with,” said Gray. End users need a system to manage the bit rate, which can be achieved by streaming to meet particular needs, adjusting bit rates to a lower level and “cranking it up when you need full resolution,” he said.

Along with the compression technology to manage bandwidth and sensory technology to manage lighting, Gray noted, is a trickier variable—human judgment.

“You have to be ready not to use 4K in every situation,” he said.

At this point in time, 4K is a niche product, one where you need to cover an expansive area but maintain pixels on target, said James Marcella, director of technology services for Axis Communications.

“I don’t know if I can identify a specific vertical market” that is perfect for 4K, Marcella. “This might be right for sports stadiums, airports and critical infrastructure. In a gymnasium, he said, you can identify individuals in the crowd with a 4K system—but you may get the same job done by trying to cover less space with an analog camera.

Likewise, “You’re not going to put 4K cameras in your warehouse,” he said.

Donaldson suggested that casinos and other gaming sites may be perfect for 4K cameras, as long as the lighting is sufficient. A camera perched near the ceiling of a casino ballroom, while covering a vast expanse of machines, lights, card tables and players, can zoom in on card players, cards, card value, chips and chip value, he said.

But the potential is alluring, and security people are trying to clarify the images in their own minds of the potential applications. The idea of surveillance in a wide area with ultra-high definition cameras capturing close-ups in great detail “is the holy grail” of physical security imaging right now, said Willem Ryan, director of global product marketing at Avigilon, based in Vancouver.

“It becomes a nice option,” Ryan said. “It creates great value.” When the industry smooths the rough edges of technology management through compression, “4K itself will eventually go mainstream” for security needs, he said. 

An example offered by Doug Gray: When ultra high-definition technology attempts to pick up dim light, “noise” increases. This requires better lenses with higher edge resolutions.

“Our job is to give the end users what they want, and what they have wanted since the beginning of time is better image quality, reliability and ease of use,” said Drummond of IDIS. “You don’t want an unrecognizable blob.

“Ever since we went from analog to IP, bandwidth has been an issue,” Drummond said. End users “want better image quality, but they’re smart enough to ask, ‘at what cost?’”

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