Tim Compston looks at the latest camera technology that retailers are deploying in-store, including advanced 360-degree, panoramic cameras that have the potential to cover large areas and in conjunction with powerful processing deliver de-warped images on the fly.
The increased sophistication of IP-based 360 cameras, and associated image processing, is offering retailers a more complete, and flexible, view of what is happening than ever before, helping to eliminate surveillance blind-spots, that would otherwise not be economical to cover with conventional cameras, and, crucially, delivering heightened situational awareness and control.
For his part William Ku, vice president, International Business Division at Vivotek, is an enthusiastic advocate of panoramic megapixel cameras. He feels they are fast becoming the solution of choice for wide-area monitoring by retailers. A factor which, he contends, places 360-degree cameras above other comparable options relates to the overall monitoring of people and events. Alongside this, he points to the high megapixel video quality that supports clear and precise monitoring. Additionally, the ability to minimize the number of cameras deployed so, for example, customers do not feel uncomfortable with the level of monitoring is, Ku says, to be welcomed as is the reality that fewer cameras means a more economical solution.
Touching on the primary drivers for the widening of the 360 degree camera installed base, Joel White, senior product manager at Tyco Security Products, agrees with Ku that reduced costs and better coverage are having a positive impact: "There are lower costs because you are deploying fewer cameras and, you require lower bandwidth as you only have to push the video from one, as opposed to, multiple devices for the same coverage. This can also translate into storage benefits." From a technology perspective, White says that increased interest is also being spurred on by the availability of higher resolution sensors: "In a 360-degree camera, you really want something that is at least five megapixels because once you extract de-warped views you never really gain five megapixels back into the system."
White is adamant that, however capable they appear, 360 degree cameras should not be seen in isolation but rather, alongside elements like NVRs, as part of an integrated system experience: "Cameras enable the system but, in fact, systems like NVRs are what the folks in the retail control rooms are typically interacting with." On the 360-degree camera front, White explains that although these products give a broad awareness of what is going on, they are not the complete answer and retailers are still deploying cameras in other formats: "It is really which camera is most appropriate for the situation." White also says that, when you think about a very wide-angled lens, the further a 360 degree camera is removed from the subject matter there is, going to be a corresponding fall-off in pixels: "To achieve the best from a surveillance system it may make sense, in some instances, to still use another camera like a PTZ to really aim, focus and track a suspect in-store."
On the subject of de-warping of the images collected by 360-degree cameras, White is of the view that it is best if this actually happens in the camera itself: "This makes integration with any NVR platform, for example, much simpler." Interestingly, White recounts a conversation with the vice president of security for a large retail chain that actually deployed 360-degree or fish-eye cameras: "One concern that he had from an evidential point of view was whether a de-warped image would be considered as modified video. So, practically, there is a need to store the circular unaltered image as well as the de-warped view." Something else which, White reports, emerged from his discussion was the fact that operators were taking longer to become accustomed to a 360 degree camera versus the typically fixed view camera: "Looking at a de-warped view, and using a ‘virtual’ PTZ to move around across the horizon, may initially disorientate them," says White.
When talking about 360 degree cameras, of course, an important ‘behind-the-scenes’ element is the VMS (Video Management System). A case in point here is the solution offered by VMS specialist Wavestore. The company confirms that the latest version of its VMS software is able to support the growth in demand for 360-degree (and 180-degree) cameras by facilitating the recording of captured fish-eye images and, simultaneously, the display of locally de-warped versions of the images, alongside images from other network and analog cameras in a multi-image display. A three-axis mouse or an industrial-grade joystick can control a virtual PTZ function to repeatedly track and record unique video clips of the actions of an unlimited number of individuals or moving objects captured in the camera’s field of view. This powerful feature, Wavestore says, gives panoramic cameras a major advantage over traditional PTZ cameras which, when manually controlled or pre-programmed to zoom into one section of a scene, cannot capture recordable images of activity taking place outside the zoomed-in area.
Mark Wherrett, who chairs the CCTV Technical Group of the BSIA (British Security Industry Association), offers a note of caution for retailers regarding the capabilities of current 360 degree or ‘fish-eye’ cameras until ultra HD versions start to make their presence felt in the market: "At the moment when you look at 360 degree cameras they appear quite good on the surface but it is important to realize that once you de-warp the image the actual resolution really isn’t as high as some people think it will be when they opt to swap conventional pan and tilt cameras for one of these." There is also, of course, the point that, as Wherrett confirms, the resolution falls away quite dramatically from the center of the lens towards the edges. On the plus side, despite these limitations, Wherrett reiterates the fact that 360 degree cameras really come into their own for overall situational awareness as opposed to the higher resolution needed for recognition and identification: "Obviously if you have a mechanical PTZ camera focusing on something and an incident happens somewhere else in the scene, say behind the camera, you have absolutely no recording and no idea what went on. A 360-degree camera in this sort of scenario is great for situational awareness with the understanding that you won’t get as good a quality image out, in terms of image resolution, as you might from a pan and tilt camera with a zoom lens."
Another company seeking to take advantage of the heightened demand for 360-degree cameras is leading CCTV equipment manufacturer Dedicated Micros. A concrete illustration of this, according to Salim Idris, general manager for Dedicated Micros in the Middle East, is the new CamVu 3602 IP surveillance camera. Just launched, the CamVu 3602 received rave reviews as a finalist in the CCTV Camera Equipment Product of the Year category of the prestigious IFSEC Awards, held recently in Birmingham, England. Idris says that the CamVu 3602, that comes with ICR (Integrated Camera Recording), features a two-megapixel CMOS chip: "I think that two megapixels are good enough for most retail applications other than maybe in supermarkets with very high ceilings. It is definitely more efficient in a storage sense as well as bandwidth if you are doing streaming." The ability of the camera to offer seven independent streams [six de-warped operating and one 360-degree] means, according to Idris, that they can each be treated as if they were distinct cameras: "You can import them, view them and stream them as totally separate images." Beyond this, apparently, it is possible to embed transaction data in each de-warped stream for data exception reporting.
A new focus
Roy Alves, a business development manager at Axis Communications for the MEA region, is positive about 360 degree IP cameras: "Without doubt, these cameras are fantastic where you can replace four or five cameras with one camera in a strategic position for a very good field of view." Having said this, Alves, is keen to spotlight a different approach that Axis is taking to retail IP camera systems by focusing on capturing detail closer to ground level: "Something innovative that we have moved forward with is to use the lens from an HD IP camera body at eye level while the camera body, which would be too bulky for the Point Of Sale (POS) area, remains in the ceiling. Traditionally when you want to catch people, catch information, you put the camera high up but then you may not see everything that happens at the counter."
In the view of Sanjit Bardhan, director, Middle East and Africa (MEA), at Arecont Vision, retailers are keen to deploy security systems to deal with the issue of shrinkage whether that be from dishonest employees or customer theft: "Megapixel solutions provide end-users with the evidence they need to mitigate such shrinkages, leading to effective loss prevention. With panoramic [360-degree] cameras our customers can now see the overall activity in retail spaces and, moreover, if they want to monitor specific chokepoints - cash registers, entry and exit points, and high-value product areas - we offer solutions to address those needs as well."
Ultimately, with new higher resolution sensors coming to the fore, and enhanced de-warping and independent streaming capabilities a practical reality, we are only just starting to glimpse the true potential of 360-degree cameras to transform video surveillance across our retail outlets.