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Video Apps and Platform Devices

by Benchmark

Ever since security – and predominantly video surveillance – moved towards a more networked approach, there has been something of an expectation that the inherent flexibility of the technology will introduce radical changes to the way in which security systems are designed. Many have looked towards how other sectors exploit the technology, and by applying some of these principles we could be about to see significant changes in the security hardware market. Benchmark considers how such changes might impact on installers and integrators.

When the video surveillance market-place was restricted by the limitations of composite video standards, inflexible cabling topologies and issues with regard to how the captured video was recorded and managed, there were a number of approaches which included some element of compromise. This compromise typically affected either video quality or frame rate. The core principles of surveillance system design were established to try and minimise that level of compromise. They certainly weren’t selected because they were the best approaches. It was more case of being the only way to deliver a suitable system at a realistic price.

For many in the security industry, the advent of devices which wholly utilised digital technology, plus the addition of a network-based infrastructure, promised a greater degree of flexibility. Unfortunately, in the early days the migration to new working practices didn’t fully exploit the potential on offer. Often the system topology merely replicated what was offered by the previous composite solutions. The approach made little sense!

Where this happened, many questioned the gains achieved by transition. At their simplest, the changes to systems were straight swaps: the DVR was replaced with an NVR, composite cameras were replaced by IP cameras, and the composite monitor was replaced with an HDMI or VGA monitor. Often the end user saw little change in the system at an everyday operational level. The installer’s task was more complex, and the cost of a replacement system was increased.

As developments in digital surveillance increased, so the arguments for not transitioning were reduced. Image quality could be enhanced, scalability was improved, as was flexibility and viewing options. The new systems could offer performance and benefits that the old systems could not match, and prices were coming down.

More recently the arguments for transitioning have been strengthened. It is now possible to stream significantly improved image quality, and edge recording offers a greater degree of flexibility and security at a reduced price. Integration has been radically improved, and VMS solutions – whether software or supplied as an appliance – deliver advanced levels of functionality.

The benefits of moving away from a restrictive topology such as that used by analogue solutions have been well documented, as have the arguments for migrating to a software-based recording and management solution. Essentially, systems should be designed to suit the specific requirements of any given site. Any security system based upon a ‘one size fits all’ approach is inevitably compromised in some way, and today’s technology means that this is no longer necessary.

Where the developments which are ongoing in the surveillance industry – and which will impact on other sectors such as intruder detection, access control and perimeter protection – get really interesting is when this inherent flexibility is not just considered on a system basis. Today’s reality is that it can also be considered at a product level too!

Made to measure
Today’s security products represent a balance of functionality and cost-efficiencies. If we take cameras as an example, what tends to differentiate the various models from differing manufacturers? In truth, if you look at HD1080p cameras from credible and well established branded manufacturers, the image quality from the majority of units will be very similar. Additionally, the core functionality will also be relatively equal.

Often what differentiates one model over a competitor’s will be a single function that a given manufacturer delivers well, or has enhanced to best suit the needs of a given site. In some cases this can lead to one of two approaches. Either cameras from a number of manufacturers will be required to ensure best performance for requirements at any given camera location, or some degree of compromise will be introduced. Neither approach is perfect.

The considerations for device specification change again if a very specific requirement is needed. If this is outside of the typical functionality of mainstream cameras, then the installer or integrator could be faced with having to select a device from a very limited choice, or there might be a need for additional hardware and/or software to achieve the necessary performance.

Given that the transition to digital technology can free those installing systems from the historical restrictions of cabling topologies or limited system design options, it is slightly frustrating that some degree of compromise could be introduced because the vast majority of devices – cameras in this example – are relatively formulaic in their included features!

However, this is about to change, and could actually result in a very different approach for those seeking to create innovative systems that deliver genuine value-added benefits!

The platform approach
Many leading manufacturers have been developing devices which take a different approach to features and functions. Instead of offering standalone devices, they are moving towards a more platform-based range. This makes a lot of sense, both with regards to how they invest their R&D resources, and how they meet the changing needs of installers and integrators, and their final customers. The approach is currently proving to be a great success in other sectors, and given the direction in which the electronic security industry is heading, it offers a perfect fit.

Probably the most prolific examples of where platform-based devices exist are the smartphone and tablet market-places. These devices have risen in popularity, to a degree where they have pretty much made the basic mobile telephone or notebook PC obsolete! The real benefit of these devices is typically not their core functionality, but the fact that third party applications can be easily added to enhance the features and functions on offer.

The result is that the manufacturers of the devices can concentrate on delivering the best quality products in terms of core functions and processing, as well as offering a small number of basic applications for key functionality. Other third party specialist companies can then create a range of alternative applications which can further enhance the performance of the devices.

It must be said that whilst the consumer market has seen a plethora of apps launched which range from the intelligent to the banal, and that incorporate the robust and professional down to the unreliable and downright flaky, the approach from the security sector would be different.

For example, camera manufacturers could concentrate their development efforts on delivering the best quality image capture. Their focus would be on image processing, compression, streaming, etc.. The cameras would even include some of the proprietary features that are delivered today.

Through a series of third party platform partners, a host of more specialised applications and plug-ins would be available. These would be downloaded to storage on-board the camera, typically solid state, and would allow the installer or integrator to specify the cameras for image quality, and then to customise them to meet the specific needs of the site.

The applications and plug-ins would vary from image enhancement tools such as boosted WDR, low light enhancement, regions of interest, etc., through analytics rules and various detection options, to business intelligence add-ons such as people counting, heat mapping, tracking, etc..

This approach could prove to be very cost-effective: consider analytics, for example. Typically modern cameras with on-board IVA include a range of rules, and this is useful because different sites – and even different camera locations on one site – will have varied needs. However, if only one rule is used on a certain camera, then why pay for the others? Also, often the performance will be limited so as to not over-stress the camera’s processing capabilities.

By choosing specific apps, the installer or integrator decides exactly how that device behaves. Cameras could host multiple apps, selecting which to use on a scheduled basis. This would allow a unit to be deployed for business intelligence while a site is open, switching to a more security-specific role out of working hours.

Because the apps would predominantly be delivered by third party companies, this means that specialist manufacturers and developers can focus on the skills and knowledge that add value and performance, without having to develop a hardware product to host the application or plug-in.

Benchmark has, over the years, seen several innovative software-based applications which have been let down – performance wise – by the generic hardware device they are implemented on. This is often because a company’s skills lie in software engineering rather than hardware manufacturing. The result is that the platform which the innovative element runs on is a generic device which doesn’t have the performance of other competitive units.

Because companies with a pedigree in hardware manufacturing will be focused upon building a device that both delivers the core performance to a high level, plus has additional processing capabilities to allow the use of third party apps, developers can create solutions with a prior knowledge of the performance available. They will also be assured that those producing the platform are a credible manufacturer, with a reputation to protect!

A wider scope?
Whilst the driving force behind the wider use of downloadable function-specific apps will inevitably be the camera sector – there are already a handful of leading manufacturers offering such functionality, and a large number working towards launches in the very near future – this is not a video-specific tool.

It makes sense for other devices to also allow the use of apps. For example, there is no reason why access control card readers could not use apps which add specific functionality.

Many readers can already manage distributed intelligence. They have storage and processing capacity built in to ensure continuity of performance if off-line. Add to this the flexibility of smart card technology or biometrics, and the potential starts to become obvious.

Other devices, such as external detectors, could also include the use of apps. For example, units using an app that delivers alarm sequencing could be used to give alerts when directional violations are detected.

The important point to note is that any device – camera, codec, detector, reader, etc. – would function as a standard device if no apps are added. This isn’t an exercise in making people pay for core functionality. However, in many cases, where additional benefits are desirable, this typically has to be implemented centrally. This isn’t always the best approach, nor does it allow a great degree of flexibility.

By pushing some of the processing and decision-making to the device, it allows a greater degree of innovation to be achieved. The creation of bespoke systems becomes a simpler task, and customisation is made easier to achieve, more affordable and more reliable.

This approach also allows installers and integrators to add non-security functions to systems without a need to source products from outside of the industry. Devices which they trust and are familiar with can be converted to fulfil more specialised roles.

Add-on sales, recurring revenue and greater customer satisfaction all become attainable realities.
One sector which reflects the potential that the use of apps and platform devices could deliver is the VMS industry.

In the early days, VMS packages offered basic video management. Their real selling point was an ‘open platform’ approach. The products offered a simple and cost-effective way for installers and integrators to deliver best-of-breed video solutions using a wide variety of third party devices. Where ONVIF and PSIA failed to deliver, VMS providers met the needs of the industry.

Today’s VMS offerings are very different. Whilst most still offer the capability to work with a wide range of third party devices, they also can deliver a variety of additional and innovative add-on features. These are typically provided via third party companies offering plug-ins. A brief look at many of the VMS partner integrations gives a good idea of how the development of apps will advance.

Indeed, what is most exciting about the path being followed by manufacturers is the possibilities that could follow. If devices from a wide range of disciplines can offer a high degree of on-board customisation, coupled with relevant plug-ins at the VMS level, the potential for advanced functionality is huge.

One for the future?
The use of apps, plug-ins and security-related platform devices is not a vision for the future. A number of leading manufacturers already offer devices which are ‘app ready’, and the first wave of apps are starting to appear. Also, a number of those developers who offer plug-ins for VMS solutions are adapting what they offer to create an ‘on-device’ version. Indeed, some of the VMS providers are also offering variants of their software to allow implementation on edge hardware.

Currently the roll-out of apps is slow. The reason is simple; the first step was to create hardware that was designed to deliver the additional processing demands. Now this is in place, testing and final development can be accelerated.

For installers and integrators, it is important to understand the potential on offer, and to assess how they can impact on the solutions being offered to end users. The additional functionality equals genuine value. Now is the time to start exploring that value, and preparing for what will be a exciting change!

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