There’s more to life than security
By Linda Johnson
Whether they’re monitoring new-born pandas or providing a record of the construction of a new sports stadium, surveillance cameras are being used in new ways every day.
By Linda Johnson
For the security industry, the growing use of cameras for non-security purposes is proving beneficial. As cameras become smaller and smarter, they’re taking on useful roles in areas such as marketing, operations and compliance, thus opening up new opportunities with existing customers and a way to attract new ones.
“Over the last two to three years, video surveillance cameras have adopted many more applications outside just the pure video surveillance and security setting,” says Aaron Dale, market analyst, security and fire, at the research firm IHS. “People have been using non-security cameras in niche applications for quite a while, but more recently, it’s become more mainstream.”
The primary non-security use of surveillance cameras, he adds, is business intelligence — the use of cameras to increase efficiencies and profit line. Often, the initial infrastructure has already been set up for security, thus providing an added incentive to upscale. This application is most prevalent in the retail market.
Kevin Saldanha, director of product management for IT cameras at Clovis, Calif.-based Pelco by Schneider Electric, says intelligent video analytics inside a camera produce heat maps that retail store managers can use to see how customers move about the store. If a store has just set up a new end-cap layout, a display at the end of an aisle, for example, the manager will want to know whether it’s attracting customers.
“That’s valuable business intelligence that the people who change configurations of stores can use to great advantage in improving their business operations and effectiveness. So, the ROI for these types of applications is readily apparent,” he says.
Cameras are also used in retail to see how a store is operating, an application especially useful for multi-site companies, Saldanha says. Managers with many stores can call up cameras in all the different stores and see what’s happening in each. They can compare activities and efficiencies: what level of traffic each store has, how employees help customers and how long people are waiting in check-out queues. Long line-ups can cause a store to lose customers. If operations staff see long waits in a particular store, they might decide to open another checkout or even to re-train staff to work more efficiently.
Dan Cremins, global leader of product management at Ottawa-based March Networks, says the collected meta-data helps retail marketing and operations people identify trends that could affect the business. “The real trick of this is to be able to take the information you’re seeing from all the different stores every second, every hour, and be able to chart it out into a dashboard to see trends over time. You may see that one particular store constantly has people waiting in line much longer than all the other stores. So, you can look at the video, talk to the manager and get to the root of the issue.”
Retailers are also beginning to use surveillance cameras, he adds, to help determine conversion rates: a comparison of the number of people who enter a store with the number who purchase something (number of transactions). This information is important primarily to specialty retail stores, particularly clothing stores.
Cremins says many retail owners and managers are using cameras to conduct operations audits. A camera takes snapshots at regular intervals, and a manager can then review the shots to make sure that operational, compliance and performance standards are being met in their absence.
The compliance aspect makes the operations audit function particularly useful to financial institutions, he adds. Many banks have opening and closing procedures they are required to follow to discourage robberies.
“Operations people want to make sure each branch manager is actually doing this. So by taking a snapshot at 9 o’clock or right before, you can see, yes, I see the manager and the employees; they’re gathered together. They’re following the process,” he says. “Banks have processes in place, and they need a tool to be able to ensure that all their branches are compliant.”
Retail marketing has also taken advantage of the merger of analytics and meta-data coming from cameras to develop dynamic marketing, says Jim Murray, senior product manager for video at Torrance, Calif.-based AMAG Technology. Thus, public view monitors can change what they display depending on the number and type of people that may see it.
“The monitor is dynamically deciding: do I want to show that you’re being watched, show just an image of what’s being viewed by the camera that’s open to public view, or do I want to show marketing material that corresponds to a promotion that’s going on right now,” he says.
Even more targeted is some digital signage, which identifies customers by characteristics such as gender and age and then displays an advertisement deemed most suitable for that group, Dale says. Digital signage is being used in ever more inventive ways. In a recent Porsche campaign, for example, a video surveillance camera with embedded object detection functionality was paired with a digital signage advertisement at the side of a highway.
“It would detect that a Porsche had driven by, and it would then display that particular advertisement,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of these types of applications recently.”
On industrial sites, Saldanha says, managers are using video assets to fulfill functions such as monitoring adherence to safety processes. A piece of equipment may need to be checked at regular intervals, for example. “Sometimes, they want to know that physically somebody went there, did their job, because it was important that that process be followed for the safety of people and equipment in that area.”
Thermal imaging cameras have made possible other non-security applications on industrial work sites, he adds. They’re sometimes used to map moisture paths and detect leaks that may be hard to see. And, because the first sign of a problem in a machine is often an out-of-control temperature, they are also used to ensure machines are functioning properly, replacing the visits by an inspector with a handheld thermal scanner.
Thus, at power plants and stations, which run very expensive equipment and want to avoid power outages, thermal cameras are used to produce heat maps of sensitive portions of equipment, Saldanha says.
“If you have thermal cameras with intelligent, thermographic analytics in them, you can continuously monitor the heat maps at different points on a piece of equipment. And, if anything goes out of control, you have immediate notification via analytics alarms from the camera, which tell you: this particular point, which is supposed to be in this temperature range, has now gone out of it,” he says.
In another industrial application, cameras are used with RFID tags attached to products moving along an assembly line to help determine where each piece is located on the line, Murray says. “So if, for example, the RFID tag isn’t read properly, a manager can go to the camera to see what’s going on and perhaps manually enter in the ID of that product.”
Murray says the non-security use of cameras has increased primarily because the cost of IP cameras has dropped significantly, while quality has been improving. The processors in cameras with on-board processing capabilities are getting better and faster, and thus the range of analytics that can be done at the camera is growing.
“It means the meta-data that comes out of the camera that can be stored and shared is always widening; there’s more valuable data coming out of the camera,” he says.
The trend has also been driven by Cloud technology, as well as the ability to make cameras more aesthetically pleasing and less intrusive, a feature particularly important in the residential market.
Using cameras for non-security purposes is a boon for security professionals, Cremins says. Integrators are always trying to expand their businesses, but it’s difficult to repeatedly return to the same customers and try to sell them the newest, higher-megapixel camera.
“But if they can go to an existing customer and say, I can offer you more than just a security solution to solve more of your problems, then there’s more money in it for integrators. And they’re making their customers happier,” he says.
While people are coming up with new ways to use cameras in other industries — in automotive, for example, where features like night vision and lane departure detection are being built into cars — the main opportunities in the near future will continue to be in the retail and residential markets, Dale says. There is still in both areas a lot of room for expansion, he adds. He does not see cameras moving into very many non-niche environments, although there are indications that gaming and defence are two possible applications.
“There’s a lot of this technology being used in anything from missile guidance systems to drones.”
Murray believes the use of non-security cameras will continue to expand in many areas. They’re already being used in “intelligent stadiums” to determine queue length and in parking lots to identify which levels are full. He also sees a growing use in remote health care.
“It will provide more reasons for people to have cameras in their home. They can have an appointment with a doctor, and they don’t need to go in. They can use cheap video conferencing through the phone or PC. Cameras can be used to meet with people in professions that are under-staffed,” he says.
Cremins says the use of non-security cameras to monitor compliance, especially in safety protocols, will lead to widespread adoption of the technology across many verticals. Employees in many workplaces are required to wear safety helmets and vests.
“Think about any application, not just retail, but wherever people have to wear safety clothing,” he says. “If you had a tool to be able to work across all your locations to make sure that, every hour, employees are wearing their safety gear, what better solution is there than video?”
Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto.