Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is video analytics for real yet?

My short answer is yes. My long answer is still yes it is, but under certain conditions and for a price.

Pixel based video analysis has been around for years. Available for free, we have all referred to it most commonly as simple motion detection. Video Content Analysis, also known as Intelligent Video Analytics (IVA), jumps beyond analyzing pixel changes and seeks to identify discrete objects in a scene, track them through it and draw conclusions about their behavior. Video content analysis 'knows' the difference between the near-random rustling of leaves in a tree-line versus a group of people walking together along the sidewalk underneath them. Pixel-based algorithms don't have the slightest chance of accomplishing this, which is why they are rarely used outdoors. However they have very high success rates indoors in quiet corridors where nothing interesting ever happens, normally.

So if IVA is ready for prime-time, then why isn't it all around us? There are a bunch of factors at play here. Surprisingly the first is not reliability nor price; it is experience. How can someone sell and install IVA unless he has learned the hard way from previous installations? And if that expertise has to come from the manufacturer then that automatically drives up the cost per channel because of the increased cost of sale, which is the second factor. Prices vary from several hundred dollars to $4,000 per camera depending on the architecture and the kinds of behaviors you want to detect. Government, airports, military and critical infrastructure may be able to justify it, but what about the Elementary School that wants to stop people parking in the fire lane in front of the school? I could put reliability as the third factor, but really IVA works reliably under certain conditions - and it is experience that tells you what those are. So, I'm going to lump reliability with experience.

My vote for the third factor is total cost of ownership, commonly known as TCO. If you are doing video analytics on a bunch of liquid nitrogen-cooled PC servers that have more quad-core processors than an octopus has legs, then according to published data from the Meta Group, SAP and Gartner, the TCO for a PC is 1-5x the capital investment per year. So a $10,000 server costs another $10-50K per year to keep the little LEDs flashing on the front. Extrapolate that for 3 years to see how much these analysts estimate the system really costs you. I'm not saying that server-based analytics is bad; indeed it can do things that embedded analytics cannot; however, at least know the true cost of the system - not only in initial capital but also the maintenance, UPS power for the servers as well as the cooling, which has to be beefed up to cope with all the servers, and finally the rack space. Yes, IVA has a very real environmental footprint, but it hasn't hit most of us in the face yet because we have so little experience, because it hasn't become mainstream yet.

If Experience, Initial Price and TCO are preventing the mass market adoption of IVA, what has to change? Time will give us experience. And in my opinion moving the intelligence to the edge away from centralized PC servers, and detecting 'the most common' kinds of behavior using algorithms embedded in the edge devices will deliver much more acceptable TCO figures, drive up volume and consequently drive down unit price, bringing intelligent video analytics to the masses. And just like simple video motion detection, that's where it's needed most.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What is Video over IP?

Since this is my first post I thought I'd start off with a simple question, one that unfortunately doesn't get asked and more often than not leads to fundamental arguments about just about everything that follows. What is Video over IP?

Should be simple enough, but there are extreme purist views, and miles of gray in-between. At one extreme they declare a 'traditional' IP camera, such as is common-place in CCTV, must be used for it to be IP video. The more liberal view is that an analog camera connected to an encoder, or IP video server, is also acceptable as conforming to the label of IP video. Then the purists kick in, taking the stance that only megapixel cameras are true IP video because they break the NTSC/PAL shackles and anything else is a waste of time. At the other end a DVR with a network port on it is considered by some to be IP video, allowing the user to view live and recorded video from anywhere on the network. Somewhere in-between you have IP cameras and encoders with onboard storage (something I refer to as Recording at the Edge) which play a dual role of pure IP streaming device and DVR. Everyone talks about convergance of IT and physical security, because it helps to sell more pure IP video systems. But not many people are talking about the pragmatic use of multiple concepts to solve a given problem. It is this same merger of concepts that brought us the iPhone, Pearl, combo fax/ printer/ scanner/ copier/ and coffee-maker.

I take IP video for what it is - a system which somewhere in its architecture uses the IP network to get video from point A to point B. This abstract view covers all the scenarios above, giving each manufacturer the chance to differentiate themselves by justifying why their view is right and everyone else is wrong. A few manufacturers have all their eggs in one basket - they have only one solution, so by definition it has to be the only right one. I'm never going to say they are wrong, all I will say is buyer beware when you are presented with a prescriptive solution with little or no options. There's always more than one way to skin a cat, and the end-user is entitled to know as many as he or she is ready to hear.

The beauty of IP video is the architectural flexibility it offers, and consequently the things it makes possible. View at one quality, record at another. Record in 2 locations in case of a disaster. Move the monitoring station at a moment's notice. Share storage. Reuse existing infrastructure or just lay one cable. There are many more advantages, and constraints, that with your help I hope to explore in future posts. I welcome the challenges and corrections, in fact I positively encourage it otherwise I would be contradicting the multi-view world I believe in.