Digital Video Surveillance

Digital Video Surveillance
New visual technology means better protection for you

By Tom Chmielewski

It can ruin a perfectly good day. You drive up to your self-storage facility on an otherwise glorious morning, and there are the telltale signs left by an intruder: vandalism, open doors, renters' property strewn about. It's your worst nightmare, but there is one minor consolation: You have a video-surveillance system, which means there's a chance of catching the responsible party, if...

And that's the problem. There are some big "ifs," especially when you're operating a standard analog video system. You might catch this guy IF the quality of the tape (which you've been using and reusing for a year now) is still good enough to make a positive identification. And IF you remembered to change the VHS tapes, as you must do every day. And IF you're willing to spend hours sifting through miles of tape to find the scene you need. That's a lot of "ifs." The truth of the matter is, your chances of catching the jerk who messed up your beautiful day are greatly improved if you have one of the new digital video-surveillance systems now on the market.

A digital system--in case you've been in a Tibetan monastery for the past five years--essentially uses no magnetic videotape. The video camera converts light directly into electronic signals, which are stored on a hard drive. This may not seem like a major advancement, but in the short history of video surveillance, this is like the invention of the transistor--very big.

A Historical Survey of Surveillance

It's hard to believe that just 15 years ago a complete video- surveillance system consisted of a camera, monitor and VCR. The old tube camera was only useful in daylight and the VCR could only store eight hours of footage, tops. The next major advancement was the CCD (charged coupled device) camera that was the first to use chip technology. The new cameras made low-light recording possible (a crucial factor if you want to catch bad guys at night), but there were still drawbacks, namely the inability to record on more than one camera at a time

The advent of the digital multiplexer was a major step forward. In the mid '90s, when the prices came down to the popular range, this revolutionary unit allowed recording on up to 16 cameras simultaneously. Now it was possible to cover the entire facility with a single system. Furthermore, with the use of the time-lapse and motion-only features, an entire month's worth of surveillance could be captured on a mere 30 videotapes. It seemed we'd found the ultimate crime deterrent but, in fact, we hadn't seen anything yet.

Going Digital

Two key factors brought on the popular use of the digital video recorder. The first was an advancement in compression capability, allowing more information to be stored on a hard drive. (Round-the-clock surveillance produces a lot of information.) The second was the cost of a hard drive, which has dropped dramatically in recent years. Digital has arrived.

"The digital video-surveillance system is a vast improvement over its analog predecessors," says John Locke, sales and marketing director at Digitech International, which provides complete on-site security and risk-management systems. "When it comes to clarity, flexibility and convenience, digital recording systems have relegated the multiplexer to the horse-and-buggy days." Is the digital difference really that earth-shaking? Let's go back to the scene of the crime.

Clarity and flexibility. In the break-in described earlier, it does no good to video a scene if you can't tell what you're looking at. "Clarity is the first issue," says Bert Denson of Brundage Management Co. Inc., an operator of 40 self-storage properties in the San Antonio area. "That's the major advantage of digital." In the crime described, you might find the scenes you need, but could you positively identify the culprit, or read his license plate? Chances are you couldn't. "You also have more options to do more things with the picture," Denson goes on to say. Digitally stored images can also be enhanced in various ways (add light, change colors, reverse black and white) to make crucial determinations. With videotape, what you see is what you get.

Storage. No matter what anybody says, dealing with a month's worth of videotape is a hassle. You need at least 30 tapes and you have to load a different one each day. If you forget on the day of the crime, you've got nothing. Furthermore, the tapes are pretty much worn out after a year's use. Go much longer than that and the picture quality suffers. With digital, on the other hand, you can put a full month's surveillance on a single 60-gigabyte hard drive (and you can easily add storage capacity if you need it). Digitally stored information virtually never loses picture quality. When a hard drive is full, you can store it on an external medium, or simply leave it alone and the software directs the oldest information to be replaced in favor of the latest. And you're all through buying videotapes or replacing expensive recording heads that wear out each year.

Intelligent recording. What a digital system records is important, but so is what it doesn't record. In an effort to reduce the miles of tape required to cover a single day, analog systems employ a time-lapse feature.

"The time-lapse feature on these systems typically records in one-, five- or 10-second intervals, whether there's something going on or not," says Sven Christiansen, marketing communications manager at Integral Technologies Inc. "It's a real pain to go back and find what you need." Worse yet, time could be lapsing just when an unwanted guest offers his best mug shot.

Indeed, flexibility is a major advantage with digital. The system typically operates 16 cameras at once, but an individual camera only records when motion is detected. Cameras can be programmed to perform unique functions as well. For instance, you can program a camera to capture an image of each license plate as cars enter your facility. If 200 cars entered in one day, you could review a whole day's worth of entries in just 200 seconds.

Retrieval. Again, digital wins by a mile. Our intruder was probably on screen for only a few seconds. Finding those scenes in all that slow-moving videotape can take hours. With motion-sensitive digital, not only is there less information to review, but desired scenes are infinitely easier to find. "You can check an eight-hour day in seven to eight minutes," says John Arsement, head of the security division at John E. Hall Electric in Portsmouth, Va. "When reviewing past activity, the on-screen date and time entry lets you go right to the scenes you want. Once you've found the images, you can print them out in full color or save them to a floppy disk to hand over to the police." And, unlike a multiplexer, most digital systems continue to monitor and record your property even while you're replaying last night's action.

Remote viewing and control. This is a whole new aspect of video surveillance. "Now you literally can mind the store without being there," says Digitech's Locke. "Remote viewing software means you can operate the digital video-recording system from anywhere you have a computer, including a laptop, which you might want to call 'video to go.'" Password-protected access can be gained using a modem on standard telephone lines, ISDN modem, local-area network or wide-area network.

"Remote access would be particularly useful to chain operators," says Olaf Kreutz, product manager for digital video at Pelco. "From a central office, managers can respond to alarms, check to see if the store is tidy or even make sure personnel are on the job when and where they're supposed to be." With the functionality of the higher quality devices on the market, operators at the remote viewing location can take remote control of certain functions in addition to just viewing. Having what's called a control output means a remote operator can actuate devices at the site. Examples that extend operational flexibility include activating a gate operator or electrical lock, turning on lights or sounding an alarm.

Fool-proof. OK, nothing's fool-proof, but digital does go a long way in eliminating the "human" factor. Once the system is installed, it's pretty self-sustaining. Nobody has to change tapes. There are no complicated set-up procedures like those required by video multiplexers (a great relief for those of us who never quite mastered programming the home VCR). Recording and playing back are simply a matter of point and click. And humans can't intentionally mess things up, either. Many units feature a digital watermark, a feature that prevents tampering, making evidence from a digital recording much more useful in court.

Price. Now the bad news, right? Get ready for a surprise. The cost of a digital-recording system is roughly comparable to the combined costs of a multiplexer, VCR and a stack of industrial-grade tapes. Factor in the high maintenance costs of analog, and going digital can actually save you money.

Digital Delivers

What is the real value of video surveillance in the self-storage industry? That's an interesting question. "Mostly, it's a marketing issue," says Chris Arnold, construction manager with Metro Storage Construction. "If a customer can choose between a facility with full-blown video and door alarms and one without, it's a no-brainer."

"It's not just a comfort to customers," asserts Brundage's Denson. "It's also a deterrent to crime. Many thieves will back off when they spot video cameras." But is that enough to warrant an investment in digital? Indeed, if the purpose of security systems is primarily to comfort customers and scare off mischief-makers, one could say these showy gadgets are promising a level of protection that doesn't exist. John E. Hall Electric's Arsement would disagree.

"Digital is the only thing we push," says Arsement. "Recently, our digital system recorded a break-in. The camera captured the suspect's van and a faint glimpse of his license plate. We were able to zoom in on the plate. We adjusted the light from night to day. We adjusted contrast and brightness. Eventually we made out enough digits on the plate for the police to make an arrest. There's no way we could have done that with videotape. This is a technology for now. It works." Locke believes in the technology, too. "Our focus is on comprehensive security programs for the self-storage industry. We believe digital video surveillance is an effective part of the total package."

When all is said and done, security systems are a reflection of the real world we live in. As our customers become more security savvy, they will demand real protection for their property. The new digital video systems have raised that security to a new level. They'll make our customers feel good. Scare off a few troublemakers. And those who do try to beat the system face a far greater risk of getting caught. And that makes you feel pretty good, too.

Tom Chmielewski writes for enjoyment, satisfaction and occasional monetary rewards from a word processor in Weaverville, N.C.

Digitech International Inc. is a supplier of crime-proofing access-control and security systems manufactured especially for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 800.523.9504;

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