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Feeling creates new vision with 3D video surveillance

In 1989, Montreal's École Polytechnique was the site of the tragic massacre of 14 women by an enraged gunman.

Security for the college’s three-building campus has since been beefed up with several hundred high-end PTZ video surveillance cameras, but the proliferation of so many cameras created a new issue, says Christian Laforte, co-founder and president of Montreal-based Feeling Software.

“The security director told us last year if another crazy person started running down the hallways with a gun, he wouldn’t be able to track him with traditional video surveillance.”

Today, the École Polytechnique is running a pilot showcasing Feeling’s new 3D surveillance video management system. Called Omnipresence, the product was launched this year at the ASIS conference.

Traditional video systems in high-end security facilities with hundreds of cameras are difficult to use for tracking, explains Laforte. To use them effectively, security guards need to memorize where all the cameras are. “It typically takes months before they become familiar with where they’re placed and what they can see.”

To track suspects, guards need to select a series of cameras sequentially from a list, redirecting from one camera to the next nearest camera to follow their movements. “It takes about five to 10 seconds for each camera, so the guard will lose sight of the suspect within minutes even if he’s very good,” says Laforte.

Omnipresence tackles this problem by creating a 3D model of the interior and exterior of the facility, complete with cameras, so guards can follow visually in a natural way.
The system takes feeds from all the cameras and superimposes them on the scale model of the building. The result is a seamless, real-time bird's-eye view that can be rotated and zoomed in on a computer screen.
“When you want to follow someone, you just click in their direction, and the system automatically computes the next logical camera. It looks like projectors are being rotated and positioned on-screen as they follow the real cameras.”

Laforte says Omnipresence works equally well at tracking suspects in large crowds or cars on highways. “A strong point is that we don’t use analytics. The system is not trying to follow people – it’s presenting information so humans can better follow their targets.”

3D views add value in other ways. A large number of cameras can be monitored at the same time at one work-station. “It feels like you’re looking around while flying around the space in a plane.”

Omnipresence also addresses a big problem in the industry: many cameras aren’t installed properly, resulting in blurry images and unpleasant surprises later. “Right now, people use floor plans or eyeball a site to place cameras. With our system, you can simulate what resolution you get and see exactly what areas are covered or not.”

Laforte has impeccable credentials in 3D system design. In 2002, he was the recipient of an Academy Award as a key member of the team at Alias-Wavefront, a Canadian company that developed 3D special effects software used extensively by DreamWorks and other major Hollywood studios today.

Prior to entering the security space, Laforte and his crew applied their talents in developing 3D applications for industry heavyweights such as Google, Adobe and Sony.

Then, after touring several conferences and trade shows for the film, gaming and military sectors, the company noticed a major security gap. “There's not a lot of 3D visualization in video surveillance. You need a way to process all that information.”

Earlier versions of Omnipresence weren’t used for security, but for urban planning by the City of Montreal to visualize underground infrastructure, he says. The system was later expanded to integrate and play live and archived video within a 3D environment. “We’ve been developing it for security for a year, but the technology it grew out of is four years old.”

To integrate smoothly with existing systems, Omnipresence supports 35 camera manufacturers and has technology partnership arrangements with major video systems providers such as Pelco, Genetec, Milestone Systems and Axis Communications.

This is particularly useful for citywide surveillance, as many municipalities have a hodge-podge of disparate and incompatible video systems installed in different areas. “Because we can connect any number of video management systems, we can present images from all the cameras in one system,” says Laforte. 

There’s no limit to the number of cameras that can be integrated in Omnipresence, he adds. Although an individual sever can only handle 100 cameras, extra servers can be easily added to support more.

Besides École Polytechnique, other pilot projects are underway in Canada and the US at nuclear research facilities, power plants and airports.

The system has a hefty price tag, warns Laforte. “We’re targeting large installations with critical security concerns. This is not a product for the corner store with four video cameras.”

This is because a lot of customization is required for each facility, he explains. Integration at a nuclear facility that uses night vision cameras requires one approach, while an airport that uses traditional cameras for operational applications beyond security will have different requirements.

Laforte says several competitors claim they offer 3D video surveillance, but none is running any actual pilots in the field. “We’re the only ones offering something that goes beyond vapourware.”


December 1, 2009  By Rosie Lombardi

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