Hybrid Systems Are a Safe Bet for Casinos

While the odds at table games and chances of winning at a slot machine are frequent topics for debate in the gaming industry, one thing is certain: Casinos around the world, both corporate and Native American, are in the midst of performing the biggest upgrade since one-way glass was replaced with CCTV cameras. That upgrade is the move to digital recording.

At the center of this upgrade lies another debate. While it is clear that VHS tape is going away and DVRs are its replacement, many manufacturers (often without analog product lines) see the industry as a digital-only solution. “Virtual matrix switch” is a frequently used phrase, and their prospective customers are urged to go 100-percent digital. 

Casino surveillance directors, however, are pushing back. They like the idea of digital and are buying into all of the advantages. They are frequently heavily invested in, or are in the process of, converting their recording side to digital, but most are not sold on replacing their analog cameras. This article will explore whether the replacement of analog makes sense, where analog can clearly outshine digital with today’s available technology and how “hybrid” systems are frequently the appropriate choice for gaming venues.

Necessary Building Blocks for Any Video System
In order to better compare the various options, it’s important to understand the building blocks of a digital video system — whether it be analog, digital or somewhere in between. This is easier than ever, since the various types of systems have more in common than they have differences. In fact, the basic system architecture is identical regardless of the type of system you select — once you’ve made the decision to eliminate VHS and incorporate digital recording as part of your system. (If you’re still considering VHS as an alternative, see the sidebar “5 Myths of VHS Debunked” below.)

There are five functional areas to any video system. For the purpose of illustration, we’ll compare these five areas to Lego® building blocks. You first must acquire a video image, usually with a camera. The image must then be encoded into a digital format and stored on a hard drive. There must be a means to retrieve the video image for playback or live viewing, and finally a means to display, or view, the image on a monitor. These functions are universal regardless of the type of system used; the only difference, believe it or not, is in the packaging.

Systems that incorporate IP-based cameras package the first two Legos in the camera, using it to acquire and encode the image. A server connected to the camera via an Ethernet network provides the storage, while a client computer allows retrieval and viewing of a video image. These systems often incorporate an additional “black box” that can be sent a video stream through a controller and display it on a monitor, completing the picture. 

When all of the pieces are assembled, this type of system is a complete recording solution that is also called a “virtual matrix.” It is called this because it incorporates the functionality of an analog matrix switch but does not require the cabling or hardware that is usually associated with such systems. 

While this type of system generates the most “buzz” on the market, most gaming professionals who have carefully examined such systems agree they are totally inappropriate for gaming. The video switching from camera to camera is slow, often as long as a second or two, while analog systems switch between cameras in a few thousandths of a second. Likewise, the control of cameras is difficult because there is a lag, called latency, between when the operator moves the joystick and when the camera moves. All systems have some latency — it takes time for a signal to get from your joystick to a camera that can be thousands of feet away — but, again, it is much greater with IP-based systems. 

It is unlikely to find an analog system with more than 40 milliseconds (thousandths of a second) of latency, while the best IP-based system is around 150 milliseconds. This translates to overshooting your target when panning a camera around the casino or across a gaming table, and a surveillance operator is unlikely to be comfortable with that amount of lag time. 

This is, for the most part, a casino industry-specific problem. Clients in other industries are perfectly happy with IP-based systems and virtual matrixes. The delay is a function of the processing required to convert digital data into “packets,” transport it across an Ethernet network and reassemble it at the other end. 

Other side effects can include dropped frames, stuttering image and an inexplicable loss of quality because of network traffic. Virtual matrixes may have the functionality of real analog matrix switches, but they do not currently enjoy the level of performance inherent in their real-world counterparts.

The Hybrid Solution: Splitting Video Between 2 Systems
Many gaming clients are finding the answer to the performance issues inherent with pure IP-based systems by utilizing a mix of analog and digital technologies, in essence creating a hybrid system. While this essentially involves splitting the video signal between two systems, there are inherent advantages to doing this and few (if any) disadvantages. 

First, let’s look at the signal flow. We’ll still use the same Lego blocks, only now the camera will be a standalone unit that outputs analog video. That signal can be run back to a central point or sent to several “nodes” around a facility, but it will remain analog until it reaches its destination. Before we move to the next link in the signal chain, let’s look at the advantages to doing this.

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