Friday, May 2, 2008

Tangled in technology

Something happened to me at ISC that I wanted to share. I met a really smart guy, who was indirectly connected with a fascinating technology sector - they make tiny converters that allow IP devices to reuse an existing coax cable infrastructure. As one of the global players that will drive his business he wanted to know my opinion on the future of this segment as the ratio of IP to analog cameras, though still a minority, continues to rapidly increase.

He argued that you could switch from analog cameras to IP cameras without recabling, just by adding pairs of these devices in a point to point manner and then have the head-end of the cable go into a regular network switch. And the cable reach is impressive too.

I was suitably impressed and I can see niche applications, however he seemed disappointed by my general lack of enthusiasm for the possibility that this was the silver bullet that was going to accelerate wide-spread IP video adoption. I asked him under what circumstances would an end user climb up a ladder, or maybe even rent a cherry picker truck, dismantle a camera housing, disconnect and remove the perfectly functioning analog camera and throw it in the trash can, install an IP camera at more than twice the cost, connect it via 6" of CAT-5 to his fascinating connector, which in turn gets connected to the existing coax, power up the new camera (but without the benefit of power over ethernet), realign and refocus (sometimes by holding a cross-over cabled laptop in one hand while adjusting the camera while standing on the ladder). All so that you can view the same image you had in the first place! Except of course NTSC IP cameras can never look as good as analog cameras because they modify the image, introducing artifacts. So in fact the picture looks worse than when you started. And of course, you would have to repeat this for each and every camera.

Of course now we can dual stream, record on NVRs (or Direct-to-iSCSI), run embedded analytics and view the video from the other side of the world -- all the benefits of IP video. But in this common scenario couldn't we have just walked into a closet and simply installed a multi-channel encoder where the old coax cables terminated anyway, and get the identical end result?

I see the converters as offering a great solution if you are going to install Megapixel cameras, or if you want to combine multi-channel encoders from various closets. But it is rare to find a closet nowadays that does not house a network switch anyway so again, what is the high-volume application for today?

Is this a classic example of technology for technology's sake? An engineering dream that invents something without an understanding of what the market really needs? And if so, how common is this among manufacturers today? Remember that today the volume of Megapixel cameras is dwarfed by CCTV IP cameras, in turn dwarfed by analog. That is the story as of ISC West 2008 anyway.


Sam said...

Clearly, it's cooler to have IP cameras than analog cameras, so I'd think most end users would rent the cherry picker just so they wouldn't be embarrassed talking to their fellow end users.

"Dude, you've still got analog cameras? Do you watch them on black-and-white monitors? You totally do, don't you? Why don't you call me on your rotary phone when you get some cooler cameras!"

Anonymous said...

Bingo. We considered using some of this technology into cameras we make, or selling at least the paired encoder/decoder boxes for this coax solution, but after months and months of talking to customers, we couldn't find a business case to support it. This technology is really "cool" but doesn't seem to have much market viability in the security sector. Companies like Coppergate have a HUGE business with it in the cable tv sector where this technology can allow analog and digital transmision over coax, which is key to that vertical. The same is not true for the security sector.