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The key to 4K

Despite the superior image quality it offers, 4K has lagged in adoption for surveillance applications for a number of reasons, mainly cost concerns.

March 15, 2017  By Tom Cook

The more detailed, higher-frame rate images 4K delivers can provide incredibly useful information for improving identification and post-event analysis capabilities, as well as improved situational awareness. In fact, most verticals can benefit from the advancements in resolution and faster frame rates of 4K. However, widespread adoption of the technology has so far been slow, mostly as a result of the corresponding challenges associated with 4K and the increased video data volume that must be transmitted from a camera to a headend for viewing, monitoring and storage — and the increased costs associated with transmission and storage.

Every new technology brings its own set of challenges and a higher price tag when it is first introduced. We see this in the consumer and security markets, and 4K is no exception. But as 4K matures, manufacturers and others will continue to seek ways to address many of the concerns and make it more accessible to a larger audience. It’s a universal truth that as adoption rates increase, overall cost decreases. We are already seeing this with 4K, and the shift will inevitably continue until overall cost settles at a price point that is more palatable and helps potential users see the inherent business benefits 4K has to offer.

Bandwidth and Storage
Not surprisingly, the main technology concern related to 4K is the increased bandwidth and storage requirement. When added to the cost of cameras themselves, the necessary investment in these “helper” technologies only pushes 4K farther and farther out of reach for most end users.

Thankfully, the market began addressing these concerns long before 4K made its way into security. The cost of servers and other storage-related hardware has consistently fallen over the last few years and this trend should continue into the foreseeable future. H.264, which has become the de facto standard for video compression in the security industry, can help make 4K video more bandwidth- and storage-friendly but video file sizes will still impact both.


The recently introduced H.265 compression algorithm, however, delivers up to 50 per cent greater compression than H.264 without affecting image quality. This allows H.265 to deliver the smallest possible video file sizes to lower bandwidth and storage requirements, while providing more details with less blocking of artifacts and noticeable distortion in the image, making it ideal for use with 4K cameras. The result is lower overall video system costs, which makes 4K even more accessible to more end users.
To see the greatest benefit from H.265 takes cameras and other solutions that go beyond simply being H.265 compliant to provide a useful  solution. The standard has been in the works for some time and has only recently been ready for implementation. H.265 is more than a simple algorithm; it defines a set of standards that relate to features, all of which must be implemented in order to get the greatest compression benefits. Therefore, cameras and other solutions must incorporate higher-power chips that enable the accelerated compression, which have recently become available.

In addition to cameras, NVRs must also support H.265 to provide an end-to-end solution that extends to end users viewing live video or reviewing recordings remotely.

VMS providers have developed or are working on additional drivers that can support and compress both H.264 and H.265 simultaneously. The processing power needed for this creates a significant load on the server, and until recently, server technology has lacked the needed processing capability. However, servers are now catching up with H.265. This underscores the importance of verifying that all 4K cameras that are deployed can be integrated with end users’ VMS, which can be as simple as updating software or installing a new driver.

The combination of rapidly dropping storage costs and H.265 compression technology is certainly reducing challenges and costs associated with these two main concerns. Eventually both factors will become non-issues, allowing more users to take advantage of the higher level of security 4K provides.

While the larger size of 4K video files may be the greatest reason for bandwidth and storage concerns, there is another factor that has long been a quandary when working with high-resolution video: lighting. This boils down to simple physics. There is only so much physical space available on a camera’s imager, and higher resolution relies on using more pixels, which must then be smaller to fit within the imager. And the smaller the pixel, the less light it is capable of capturing. As a result, light sensitivity is somewhat lower for high-resolution cameras than on lower-resolution models, resulting in larger file sizes that further add to bandwidth and storage costs.

Most high-resolution cameras incorporate Wide Dynamic Range (WDR), which allows the camera to capture images of people or objects in situations where there is low light, changing light, backlighting or other challenging condition. Typically, 4K and other high-resolution camera simply cannot perform without this essential component. However, many manufacturers have not yet included WDR into the 4K cameras they have released in the market. This does a disservice to end users by compromising image quality in challenging lighting conditions. End users should always verify their high megapixel cameras incorporate 120dB of true WDR to deliver high-quality images, especially for outdoor use.

Video Analytics
Another method camera manufacturers are introducing to combat limitations in, and added costs of, bandwidth and storage is intelligent video analytics. Previously, the increased CPU processing power required for 4K imaging made it difficult to add analytic capabilities to the cameras themselves. Recent advances in processors and analytics technologies are reducing and even eliminating this particular challenge.

End users should look for cameras that support licence-free video analytics. These include appear and disappear, virtual line, entering and exiting, tampering detection, motion detection, de-focus protection and more.

These technologies allow cameras to record at lower resolution when there is nothing of interest in the scene but increase to 4K when analytics detect a potential situation. For example, areas where the scene doesn’t change can be recorded in lower resolution, allowing specific areas such as a doorway to be captured in full 4K for identification and investigation when motion is detected.

Other compression technologies are available on H.264 to improve performance such as ZipStream, Smart Codec, H.264+ and Wisestream — but scientifically H.265 was developed to decrease bandwidth approximately by 50 per cent on all data. Hanwha Techwin incorporates WiseStream, an intelligent codec that works in conjunction with both H.264 and H.265 to further reduce bandwidth requirements.

Use Cases
Despite the limiting factors that have inhibited adoption of 4K, there are several viable applications for the technology. So while 4K resolution may still not be right for every end user or application, the base of potential adopters continues to grow thanks in large part to technologies and other factors that have mitigated many concerns about 4K. Moving forward, the many benefits 4K cameras have to offer will help offset concerns about price for many potential end users.

One good use for 4K is situations where security professionals need to monitor and record large areas and wider views to deliver the appropriate pixels on target while also providing the ability to maintain quality images when zooming digitally without losing the wider field of view. This makes 4K cameras ideal for large campuses, city surveillance, stadiums and government sectors, to name a few.

However, applications for 4K are not limited to only these larger-scale deployments. There is also a level of demand for more focused applications that cover smaller areas, such as casinos, jewelry stores, pharmacies and more. The casino vertical is a prime example of an early adopter of 4K imaging technology, primarily for high-stakes gaming and other areas where large amounts of cash and/or chips are exchanged.

Essentially, 4K is an excellent solution for any vertical market that requires both high resolution and high frame rates at the same time.

Potential Cost Savings with 4K
Without question, the higher-megapixel capabilities of 4K will eventually see adoption across most markets — a trend that will be accelerated as H.265 cameras become more available. While today’s price tags may cause users to hesitate, 4K cameras can deliver cost savings, particularly for wide-area applications.

For instance, a potential selling point for 4K cameras is the ability for a single camera to replace multiple cameras, reducing up-front equipment, installation and maintenance costs without sacrificing coverage, such as for large parking lot applications. Significant improvements in video analytic capabilities and more effective and efficient forensic investigations are other possibilities that can contribute to overall savings. These benefits will only become more relevant as prices for bandwidth, storage and 4K camera continue to drop, placing them solidly within the price range of the average end user.

The challenges associated with 4K may seem daunting today, but each can be addressed and mitigated with a full solutions provider.  

Tom Cook is the vice-president of sales, North America, for Hanwha Techwin America (www.hanwha-security.com).

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