360 Panoramic Cameras Going Mainstream

By John Honovich, Published Jun 04, 2008, 08:00pm EDT

After years of unfulfilled promises, panoramic cameras look ready to go mainstream. Increased performance, reduced costs and the rise of IP video systems have transformed a product with great potential into a key component of video surveillance systems. Now that its implementation has caught up, expect to see panoramic cameras deployed widely.

Many of you, including myself, are skeptical of this technology. Though panoramic cameras have won ISC West "Best in Show" Awards twice in the last decade, they have never been a big commercial success. First, the IPIX CommandView360 won the award. Then, IPIX, very famously, crashed and burned. Then, in 2006, Capture Omniscape [link no longer available] won the same award. This camera has become a promising niche player but certainly not a mainstream powerhouse.

Now, Grandeye has unveiled a new pure IP panoramic camera series that has the potential to change how IP security systems are designed. Grandeye has been developing panoramic cameras for the last 5 years and is the OEM behind the cameras offered by Sentry360 and Capture Omniscape [link no longer available].

Grandeye offers a 5 MP, 360 degree camera in a small, discrete form factor for an MSRP under $2,000 that can be integrated into mainstream NVRs/DVRs. This clears the major operational issues that panoramic cameras suffered in the past.

The images above depicts the camera itself and demonstrates how discrete the camera is when installed.

With this, panoramic cameras become a smart choice for:

  • Providing detailed identification of people in a ~ 1,500 sqft / 150 sq meter area like retail displays, hallways, lobbies, meeting rooms, exits, waiting areas, etc.
  • Providing action identification in a ~ 15,000sqft / 1,500 sq meter area in warehouses, supermarkets, large lobbies, malls, etc.
  • Replacing 3 or 4 cameras in an indoor open area with a single panoramic camera

In indoor facilities, like the areas mentioned above, panoramic cameras can provide the best solution for somewhere between 15% and 30% of all cameras. As such, it should become a standard part of video surveillance designs.

In the rest of this review, we will explore the details about the evolution of this product category and best practices for using them.

How the Offering and Market Matured

Despite the hype for IPIX in 2003-2004, panoramic cameras suffered from 3 major problems.

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  • The cameras were much more expensive than comparative cameras at that time.
  • The cameras were not supported by any of the mainstream video management systems at that time.
  • The video quality was poor relative to cameras at that time.

Five years ago, the video surveillance world was different and panoramic cameras were just not good enough. To use an IPIX camera meant using a stovepipe system that could not be integrated with your main video surveillance system. Most security managers are very reluctant to do this because of performance and cost issues. Moreover, even though the cameras offered 1 or 2 MPs, over a 360 degree image, the video quality was clearly worse than simply using 4 analog cameras. As such, the motivation for most was minimal and the obstacles were high.

Because of these fundamental strategic problems, IPIX's rampant marketing campaigns only made things worse. I remember going to IPIX booth multiple times not understanding what all the fuss was about. With companies like Axis and Milestone still trying to make their way to the mainstream, IPIX was a strange beast. Many people, especially with the spectacular collapse, felt the same.

Wider deployment of panoramic cameras started in 2006 with the release of a 3 MP “Analog series”. With this system, the resolution increased to 3 MPs and it could be used with traditional analog systems. However, it requires its own recorder and could not be seamlessly integrated into IP video systems. As such, customers started to use this as a niche tool (especially in retail) to address high loss issues. This will be useful for organizations committed to existing DVR systems but less compelling for the emerging IP video market.

With the new IP offering from Grandeye, the offering is optimized for mainstream IP systems:

  1. The MSRP is now under $2,000, in line with other 5 MP cameras.
  2. The camera can now stream MJPEG over IP networks to any hybrid DVR or NVR.
  3. The image quality is now up to 5 MP, providing strong quality even over 360 degrees.
  4. The camera is designed for easy and concealed deployment in ceilings.

With this resolved, panoramic cameras start making sense for widespread use.

Best Practices for Using Panoramic

Panoramic cameras address a number of key problems in video surveillance:

  1. Traditional camera deployments leave significant blind spots
  2. It can be difficult to track suspects across cameras
  3. Using multiple cameras in an area are often necessary but expensive
  4. Multiple cameras generate aesthetic problems
  5. Large camera counts can make customers feel uneasy or uncomfortable
  6. For capturing a single point or object. If there is a well defined area you want and the rest is unimportant, panoramic cameras might be a waste and you can get higher quality by aiming a narrow angle lens at the target.
  7. Monitoring large, dark outdoor areas. Because it is a 360 degree fixed camera, you will not be able to zoom across large areas. Also, megapixel cameras have challenges with super low lighting levels. If you are monitoring a crowd outside of a store, this will work well. However, you should avoid using this for monitoring a poorly lit fence line.

ArecontVision offers a unit with (4) 2 Megapixel cameras inside [link no longer available]. It's called a 360 degree camera but it's not truly 360 as a blind spot exists in the center (looking straight down). It's also not truly panoramic because it does not allow PTZ across the 4 cameras that make up the unit. The Arecont and Grandeye cameras are about the same price so the Grandeye's more advanced functionalities will make it the better choice for most applications.

Immervision offers 360 degree lenses [link no longer available] that are designed to work with many manufacturers analog and 1.3 megapixel cameras. This has the benefit of using existing cameras and a lower cost. However, because of the far lower pixel count, the image will be much less detailed. As such, this could work for action identification but would be a poor fit for personal identification or camera replacement applications.

Finally, as DVR and NVR manufacturers have only recently started to add support, you must check to determine that your system can support (For instance, Cieffe [link no longer available], NICE, Videonext, VideoProtein, and Clickit currently support Grandeye). Because they are IP cameras and use standard MJPEG for compression, support should be straightforward but it is obviously important to determine support before deployment. Two forms of support exist:

  • 1. Basic Support - the DVR/NVR can display and record user selected sections of the panoramic image. This is good for live monitoring.
  • 2. Advanced Support - the DVR/NVR records the whole panoramic stream and allows operators to pan,tilt and zoom in the recorded video. This is important for investigations.

Conclusion

Given the growing maturity of panoramic cameras, now is the time for security managers and integrators to start carefully assessing how and where these cameras can improve security and reduce costs in system upgrades or new deployments.

Traditionally, detailed identification of people in anything other than a small, well defined, area (like a doorway) was very hard. With panoramic cameras, in rooms or areas under 1,500 sqft, it now becomes possible to get those details anywhere in the room. This helps solve more cases by ensuring not only evidence available but the evidence has sufficient quality.

Likewise, in large areas, investigators are forced to piece together an incident across multiple cameras and through gaps in coverage. With a 5 MP panoramic camera, the investigator can see the entire facility with sufficient detail to track a suspect or an activity across very large areas. This makes solving cases easier and allows many cases to be solved that would otherwise be inconclusive because of gaps in video coverage.

Panoramic cameras fill an important gap in the role of traditional Megapixel cameras. Traditional Megapixel cameras are optimized for wall mounting to look in a particular direction. This is great when you are looking for something specific (i.e., just people coming in a door or license plates at a car entrance). However, when you need to see a whole room, traditional Megapixel cameras force a trade off of which direction you want to see. Panoramic cameras eliminate this trade off.

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