Digital Video Surveillance

June 1, 2001

9 Min Read
Digital Video Surveillance

Digital Video Surveillance

New visual technology means better protection for you

By Tom Chmielewski

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

And that's the problem. There are some big "ifs," especially whenyou're operating a standard analog video system. You might catch this guy IF thequality of the tape (which you've been using and reusing for a year now) isstill good enough to make a positive identification. And IF you remembered tochange the VHS tapes, as you must do every day. And IF you're willing to spendhours 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 jerkwho messed up your beautiful day are greatly improved if you have one of the newdigital video-surveillance systems now on the market.

A digital system--in case you've been in a Tibetan monastery for the pastfive years--essentially uses no magnetic videotape. The video camera convertslight directly into electronic signals, which are stored on a hard drive. Thismay not seem like a major advancement, but in the short history of videosurveillance, 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- surveillancesystem consisted of a camera, monitor and VCR. The old tube camera was onlyuseful 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 wasthe first to use chip technology. The new cameras made low-light recordingpossible (a crucial factor if you want to catch bad guys at night), but therewere still drawbacks, namely the inability to record on more than one camera ata 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 unitallowed recording on up to 16 cameras simultaneously. Now it was possible tocover the entire facility with a single system. Furthermore, with the use of thetime-lapse and motion-only features, an entire month's worth of surveillancecould be captured on a mere 30 videotapes. It seemed we'd found the ultimatecrime 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. Thefirst was an advancement in compression capability, allowing more information tobe stored on a hard drive. (Round-the-clock surveillance produces a lot ofinformation.) The second was the cost of a hard drive, which has droppeddramatically in recent years. Digital has arrived.

"The digital video-surveillance system is a vast improvement over itsanalog predecessors," says John Locke, sales and marketing director atDigitech International, which provides complete on-site security andrisk-management systems. "When it comes to clarity, flexibility andconvenience, digital recording systems have relegated the multiplexer to thehorse-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 ManagementCo. Inc., an operator of 40 self-storage properties in the San Antonio area."That's the major advantage of digital." In the crime described, youmight 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 moreoptions to do more things with the picture," Denson goes on to say.Digitally stored images can also be enhanced in various ways (add light, changecolors, 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'sworth of videotape is a hassle. You need at least 30 tapes and you have to loada different one each day. If you forget on the day of the crime, you've gotnothing. Furthermore, the tapes are pretty much worn out after a year's use. Gomuch longer than that and the picture quality suffers. With digital, on theother hand, you can put a full month's surveillance on a single 60-gigabyte harddrive (and you can easily add storage capacity if you need it). Digitally storedinformation 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 thesoftware directs the oldest information to be replaced in favor of the latest.And you're all through buying videotapes or replacing expensive recording headsthat wear out each year.

Intelligent recording. What a digital system records isimportant, but so is what it doesn't record. In an effort to reduce the miles oftape 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 IntegralTechnologies Inc. "It's a real pain to go back and find what youneed." Worse yet, time could be lapsing just when an unwanted guest offershis best mug shot.

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

Retrieval. Again, digital wins by a mile. Our intruder wasprobably on screen for only a few seconds. Finding those scenes in all thatslow-moving videotape can take hours. With motion-sensitive digital, not only isthere less information to review, but desired scenes are infinitely easier tofind. "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 inPortsmouth, Va. "When reviewing past activity, the on-screen date and timeentry 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 overto the police." And, unlike a multiplexer, most digital systems continue tomonitor and record your property even while you're replaying last night'saction.

Remote viewing and control. This is a whole new aspect ofvideo surveillance. "Now you literally can mind the store without beingthere," says Digitech's Locke. "Remote viewing software means you canoperate 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 telephonelines, 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 acentral office, managers can respond to alarms, check to see if the store istidy or even make sure personnel are on the job when and where they're supposedto be." With the functionality of the higher quality devices on the market,operators at the remote viewing location can take remote control of certainfunctions in addition to just viewing. Having what's called a control outputmeans a remote operator can actuate devices at the site. Examples that extendoperational 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 along way in eliminating the "human" factor. Once the system isinstalled, it's pretty self-sustaining. Nobody has to change tapes. There are nocomplicated set-up procedures like those required by video multiplexers (a greatrelief 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 humanscan't intentionally mess things up, either. Many units feature a digitalwatermark, a feature that prevents tampering, making evidence from a digitalrecording 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 combinedcosts of a multiplexer, VCR and a stack of industrial-grade tapes. Factor in thehigh maintenance costs of analog, and going digital can actually save you money.

Digital Delivers

Whatis the real value of video surveillance in the self-storage industry? That's aninteresting question. "Mostly, it's a marketing issue," says ChrisArnold, construction manager with Metro Storage Construction. "If acustomer can choose between a facility with full-blown video and door alarms andone 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 spotvideo cameras." But is that enough to warrant an investment in digital?Indeed, if the purpose of security systems is primarily to comfort customers andscare off mischief-makers, one could say these showy gadgets are promising alevel of protection that doesn't exist. John E. Hall Electric's Arsement woulddisagree.

"Digital is the only thing we push," says Arsement. "Recently,our digital system recorded a break-in. The camera captured the suspect's vanand 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 anarrest. There's no way we could have done that with videotape. This is atechnology for now. It works." Locke believes in the technology, too."Our focus is on comprehensive security programs for the self-storageindustry. We believe digital video surveillance is an effective part of thetotal package."

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

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

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

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