Exclusive Interview: Integrator Flowers Explains How Video Innovation Blooms
Todd Flowers is president of systems integrator Surveillance Systems Integration (SSI), founded in 2002 and headquartered in Roseville, Calif. As a bonus to SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION‘s July issue roundtable, Flowers calls upon his more than 20 years of industry experience to address how video surveillance innovation is affecting his business. His viewpoint offers a nice counterbalance to the strictly manufacturer-based perspectives offered in the print piece.
The word “innovation” gets used and abused a lot; what does it really mean to you?
Todd Flowers: Innovation is any time a solution is developed to meet a customer’s specific needs, whether that is creating a new product or adding value in new ways. For SSI, this often means looking at each customer’s current set of assets and seeing how we can either add to it or replace it with something entirely new. When we retrofit an installation we come up with innovative ways to keep as much of the infrastructure in place to minimize disruption to the customer’s business.
Innovation does not necessarily equate with success. Is it important to be innovative or can it be just as advantageous to apply business smarts to someone else’s concepts?
Flowers: Innovation may not always equate with financial success, but it is about making a win-win situation. Based on our definition of innovation, it is important to be able to quickly assess a situation for what assets already exist and find ways to add to it or offer a new solution that will surpass our customer’s original expectations. We don’t have to come up with something brand new, but we can create new solutions based on existing technologies and offer more value to the customer by being willing to consider all existing options and matching it with our expertise. For systems integrators like SSI, being adept at applying engineering implementation on the ground-level is more advantageous than trying to help manufacturers come up with brand-new technologies and products.
What other ingredients are required for an innovative technology or product to make a real impact in the marketplace? Where do ingenuity and marketing savvy intersect?
Flowers: For an innovative technology to make a real impact in the market, like the IP-based surveillance video technology we offer specialized solutions for, it is important to see how the new technology can work together with legacy systems. For us, the intersection of the ingenuity and marketing comes where we can demonstrate the advantages of the new technology and how it can work together with existing technology to create a better solution. Of course, being able to deliver promised results in the application of these concepts in a real-world environment is the key. While people might think that pricing is always the most important factor, it is simply only one factor among many, and the argument about how a system will add more value is much more critical in the innovative solution than pricing.
How can a solutions provider/integrator avoid innovation giving way to commoditization? How can margins be maintained such that profits can help sustain further growth?
Flowers: We are successful with customers who have unusual needs. Instead of designing an array of two to four predecided packages, we try to work with our customers to find components for each install that will help them accomplish their individual goals. This approach prevents the limitations often imposed by ‘one-size-fits-all’ packages, which fail to realize that different customers have different needs. In the process of determining how we can best offer value to the customer with our solutions, we are able to find ways to maintain profitability.
What are the three latest and greatest innovations you have seen in the video surveillance space and what do you like about them so much?
Flowers: Immediately, IP video surveillance comes to mind. This type of video security offers more value to an investment in network infrastructure, being more cost effective than a conventional video surveillance system. It has led to the convergence of IP and analog. IP video solutions can be used with video management systems to converge voice, video and data streams to leverage legacy infrastructure. Furthermore, this technology enables footage to be stored off-site and accessible using an online interface, making the operation of security more flexible. This means there is going to be a market for cloud-based infrastructure in the near future as well. Another innovation has been high resolution video using the H.264 codec. This innovation allows very clear video footage to be compressed enough to reduce bandwidth and storage requirements and make the system integrate even more smoothly. This codec has been evolving rapidly, with the development of H.264 scalable video coding variety. Cameras have improved image quality in recent years, but instead of making storage and streaming more difficult, this codec has allowed it to consume less bandwidth while taking up less space in a digital format that can be utilized in various ways, which leads to the next point — video analytics. For customers that use high resolution video or advanced video analytic applications, IP video offers many applications beyond security — it can be integrated to alert operators of certain predetermined conditions, such as line length or if someone enters a certain area, not to mention the flexibility in managing user profiles and permissions. In this sense, the camera is not just about security anymore — it is about how to enable surveillance video to optimize operations. While the concept of this has been around for a few years now, unfortunately, it has taken a lot of time to gain traction in the market.
More specifically, which innovations hold the greatest upside for the commercial and industrial markets?
Flowers: For the commercial market, the video analytic applications may be the motivating factor for some shifts to IP-based video systems. Allowing the cameras to alert if someone enters an area of the store, or to keep track of how many customers are in line will help them make their operations more efficient, adding value beyond just security for the customer. Besides this, higher resolution will also help in criminal identification by becoming a resource to police. Many police are launching programs for businesses to register their cameras with their local departments, and the businesses are only contacted when there is a criminal incident in the area where the surveillance camera can be found. That doesn’t mean the police are watching your cameras, it just informs them that camera footage may be available if there was a crime in the area. In industrial, there are applications of the IP and video analytic applications in this market as well. Traffic surveillance and factory monitoring can be done remotely and with specific alert guidelines to help operators be more efficient while still meeting the strict industrial surveillance standards. Connecting the system to other components in these environments could add more value in a total integrated solution package for more satisfied customers.
Can you identify three particular vertical markets that represent the greatest growth potential for innovative video surveillance solutions and why?
Flowers: For SSI, the three most critical markets are in the commercial segment, specifically the casino, retail and commercial markets. The reason is that these customers require professionals that spe
cialize in their specific markets. They want competitive pricing, as most customers do, but they really need comprehensive, turnkey solutions. SSI takes an active role in the projects because our project managers have been trained and certified by some of the industry’s leading manufacturers and we are able to offer our customers highly technical consultation, cutting-edge system design engineering, and professional project management and implementation. These are all called upon as we look at existing systems for retrofit of new technologies and also look forward to new construction where they want the latest solutions.
What are one or two other video surveillance innovations you see holding potential but are unsure whether it will be realized or not?
Flowers: For SSI, some of the more important innovations include ways to make the job of integration for our customers easier. There are products that help large installers to more correctly focus the cameras. There are also new HD-SDI products that will help extend the transmission for more than one mile. However, these new products may not gain a lot of traction because there is still a lack of supporting hardware when compared to analog or IP systems. For the casino industry, one interesting technology that has potential is a GPS tracking-enabled system that allows incoming video signals from smartphones. In theory, this would allow security guards to be equipped with common smartphones to report and document activities, with the captured video supplementing the control operations. In a gaming environment, the security could track someone across the main floor to track every movement in real time while maintaining close cover.
What are one or two video surveillance innovations that failed to catch on and to what do you attribute their failings?
Flowers: One of the innovations that is having hard time catching on is a wider spread use of video analytics. While it has gained traction, more in the past year than in prior years, it has been more limited to specific applications. A reason for the delay in adoption is because it has not been viewed or recognized as being reliable. As a full solution integration company, we have seen instances where analytics make a lot of sense, and others where we wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of it is based on the type of installation, and the technology still has some maturing that needs to happen before it becomes a more mainstream feature.
What are one or two innovative technologies from other fields you see migrating into the security surveillance space and why?
Flowers: We are already seeing the migration of IT cloud technology coming into the surveillance space — which makes a lot of sense with IP-based surveillance. The trend of integrating IT further will continue as there are many obvious advantages. First of all, the codecs need to be compatible with networking, as the infrastructure has switched to cloud and IP-based technology. Innovations in codecs continue, with upcoming technologies such as the next-generation high efficiency video coding [HEVC] technology that will have twice the performance of AVC/H.264. This will enable higher resolution images, including images at 4K resolution, at less bandwidth, which should increase the ability to use the footage as evidence. Because of the lighter data usage with advanced codecs, it will be easier to use with cloud technology and accessible from remote viewing and mobile hardware. Plus, the software will improve as well, offering innovation on both the hardware and software sides. Mobile communications advances will also play a major role in future surveillance technology. Innovations in the size and ability of the hardware used will offer more full surveillance, panoramic cameras vs. p/t/z for example, and open up new potential for areas to receive surveillance coverage.
How will the trend toward standards, open platforms and interoperability affect innovating video surveillance solutions?
Flowers: As an integrator, standards help simplify product development and reduce nonvalue-adding costs, so we can better compare the competing products. We want standards, but we don’t want them to get in the way of customizing our solutions to meet our customers’ needs. For example, H.264 is great as a standard because of the compression it offers and the bandwidth it uses; we appreciate it because the data stream can be used in different ways by different customers. This opens new doors for innovation with customers via open platforms on the IP VMS side. Open software platforms are good because they allow outside companies and developers to create products that will add more functionality and versatility to IP video surveillance solutions. Open platforms also typically allow our customers to update their technology selectively in the future because they are usually compatible with a wide selection of servers, cameras and other components available from hundreds of manufacturers. Interoperability requires an open platform, and having a truly open platform for IP video management will allow the greatest amount of choice in hardware, the greatest ease in setup and install, and the least amount of trouble in scaling integrated systems. These are all key factors in allowing innovation to occur.
What are three to five things you are doing to grow your video surveillance business?
Flowers: The first thing is trying to make the customer’s needs the focus of any install. We look at whether they need to do a retrofit, what elements of an open platform may already exist and what needs to be added to give them the most value for their specific needs. For us, part of the challenge has been to make potential customers aware of the variety of customized solutions available to them. To overcome this we have started to host technology shows around the country in key markets. It allows an opportunity for customers to interact both with various manufacturers and SSI staff in one location. Another thing we are doing is creating offices closer to our clients so we opened many new offices in the past year. We feel it is important for them to know we are nearby to offer our support through installation and beyond during normal operation and maintenance. Despite the industry trend of allowing more remote viewing and operations, we believe being close to our customers will provide them more peace of mind and confidence in the systems. It will also enable our engineers to work closely with the customer to create solutions that will surpass their expectations and lead to further adoption of process-control technologies, like analytics integration. We aim to build long-term relationships with our clients. Finally, we employ some of the top professionals in the industry that specialize in our target markets so we are able to provide unique and innovative solutions. SSI utilizes its extensive experience with legacy systems and the newest IP-based video surveillance solutions in planning system designs and installs. We also offer unique service and maintenance agreements that can cover new or preexisting systems regardless of who initially installed the system, and we aim to provide support, software and hardware updates to best serve and prolong the investment and life of an existing system.
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