Video Monitoring: A Market for Those With Vision
It is night. An unsavory-looking character dances in and out of the shadows as he skulks around the exterior of a retail superstore long after hours. Suddenly, he freezes in his tracks as a foreboding voice descends from the sky: “Warning! You are not authorized and must leave this area immediately!” Has he incited the wrath of God? No, but it’s nearly as effective. This lowlife has made the mistake of targeting a location protected by two-way interactive security monitoring.
Although still in its nascent stages, the use of two-way video and audio monitoring is making such scenarios more commonplace. Advances in technology and its affordability — particularly broadband communications and digital video recording — along with a surge in post-9/11 interest is injecting new life into a market that a select few have pursued for years.
Even if they are not going so far as to deploy two-way interactive, most of the more than 25 security dealers, integrators and third-party central stations interviewed for this article are at least exploring remote video monitoring, and many are already selling it. A Security Sales & Integration Web poll found 53 percent cited video as the monitoring service they were most interested in getting involved with.
However, video monitoring is not without its challenges. Most monitoring products are designed on traditional alarm — rather than video — platforms and, as with all cutting-edge technology, obsolescence is a problem. Other issues include broadband availability, coexistence on end-user networks and privacy, particularly in residential settings (see sidebar on page 44 of the October 2004 edidition of SSI).
Meanwhile, service providers are faced with allocating substantial capital and resources for equipment and training before the market fully fleshes itself out and customers decide what they are willing to pay for. In particular, established burglar and fire alarm monitoring companies are finding the technical and marketing demands tough to handle.
“The market does not exist yet beyond preparatory centers,” asserts Bart Didden, president of U.S.A. Central Station Alarm Corp. in Port Chester, N.Y., “because the consumer does not know what they want from remote monitoring because the dealer does not know what to sell because no one has done extensive focus groups to determine where the market is for remote monitoring.”
Regardless, it is difficult not to get excited about this market’s huge potential and the prospect of becoming more integral to helping stop and apprehend evildoers. Many professionals express such optimism. “Video monitoring will be the biggest growth market for central stations,” confirms Kevin McCarthy, national sales manager for Chicago’s EMERgency 24 Inc. “We believe this will be the case because of issues arising from verified response and because the cost for video monitoring is coming down and making it more affordable.”
Solving the verified response crisis and facilitating true crime prevention and intervention — as opposed to mere deterrence — only hint at the practically limitless capabilities and potential recurring revenue streams represented by video monitoring and two-way interactivity. Access control monitoring, guard tour services, employee surveillance, remote management and point-of-sale analysis are just some of many possible applications.
Timing is everything, and the time appears to be right now for video monitoring. Providers who seize the opportunity to carve out their niche before their competitors will lead instead of follow as this revolutionary market blossoms. The technology and interest are there; it’s all about who can bring the know-how, drive, capital, people and marketing to the fore.
Technology Comes of Age; Broadband, Software Refinement Still Needed
Remote video monitoring is hardly new. Manufacturers and dealers have been tinkering around with delivering images from one location to another for years. However, the pictures were highly pixilated or tiny, and took forever to be transmitted through phone lines and downloaded at the receiving end. Consequently, the technology was long mired in a “gee-whiz” phase.
That gradually began to change, however, as image compression techniques improved and broadband transmission became available. Although broadband is still unavailable in some areas, traditional dial-up connections are being used less and less frequently.
“We believe broadband access is fundamental to overall system operation,” says Jack O’Brien, director of Siemens Building Technologies’ Central Monitoring Stations (CMS) operations, North America. “Although video transmission compression and speed have made significant advances, we have elected to require broadband as our standard to ensure optimal performance.”
Manipulating the data also became much simpler with the advent of digital video recording. A greater variety of dissemination channels emerged such as the Internet, E-mail, networks and wireless. Today, video images can be viewed across a wide range of devices, including PCs, laptops, PDAs and cell phones. As if those great advances were not enough, the pace of enhancements and breakthroughs continue to accelerate. “There aren’t a lot of technical issues compared to just last year,” says Barry Brannon, president of Kissimmee, Fla.’s Marlin Central Monitoring.
However, capturing high-quality video images in the real world remains challenging. The type of camera (pan/tilt/zoom vs. fixed) and lens, number of cameras, and positioning of those cameras, lighting, and frame rate are among several variables that can affect what is seen at the viewing end. The end result also depends on whether the goal is simply to detect the presence of something or to actually be able to identify that something.
“Poor lighting, especially with outdoor cameras, can prevent the operator from gathering needed information,” confirms Mike Hanley, vice president of ADT Security Services’ Customer Monitoring Centers. “Another area of concern is if the subject is too far away from the camera or too large to be adequately covered with one camera. Often, these environmental variables are outside the control of the monitoring center.”
The given surroundings can impact the quality of images in a number of ways. Installers need to pay attention to weather, vibration, smoke, area size, foot and/or vehicular traffic and anything else that can possibly obstruct, distort or otherwise impair video images.
“The technical department will need a diagram of the area, including exact measurements, locations of obstacles, entrances, ceiling/building height, etc.,” adds Todd Leggett, senior vice president, Franchise Relations for Sonitrol Corp. “Other considerations are that the camera mount must be stable and on a nonvibrating surface. Remote camera technology is most predicable with a fixed camera lens as an auto-focus lens might be adjusting itself as objects move through the focus sensor.”
Another issue is finding a way to make all the elements between the cameras and the end user integrate and work together. Monitoring facilities typically have to patch together proprietary and nonproprietary systems.
Most software available today is an upgrade or tweak of existing monitoring programs. While this may work for basic alarm verification, dealers say manufacturers need to develop purely video-based software to handle more sophisticated applications like two-way interactive.
“There is little standardization and that makes for real problems at this stage,” explains Kurt Strasser, CEO of Valencia, Calif.-based SentryCom Interactive. “While some manufacturers are providing software development kits and some open source code, the majority is all prop
rietary. This means we have to manually integrate each product into our command center platform. We countered this by using open source and scalable solutions.”
Such creative alternatives necessitate a firm grasp of the IT as well as video security spheres. Technicians need to understand networking and be capable of instilling confidence of their knowledge in customers’ IT departments.
“Dealers should plan on dedicating a significant amount of time to learning some IT skills,” recommends Christopher Baskin, CEO of Knight Security Center in North Hollywood, Calif. “Many of today’s, and certainly tomorrow’s, video monitoring services will work through a company’s network. Dealers who don’t learn some basic IT skills could find themselves left out of what we believe is the future of the industry: visual security.”
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