The Siliconization of Surveillance Cameras

Author: John Honovich, Published on Oct 29, 2015

This is an insightful observation from Vicon's CEO Eric Fullerton:

“Over the past couple of years, we have seen the functionality of complex megapixel cameras become integrated mainly onto chips. Chipset providers, such as Ambarella and Hisilicon, are able to deliver their customers megapixel and sophisticated camera functionality in silicon today. This means the camera industry has gone from innovating on the camera’s performance to being more like a camera OEM business.”

In this note, we examine this trend, compare / contrast it to the 'Chinesification' of the industry, and look at Fullerton's prediction for merging companies.

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Comments (13)

The cam manufacturers need to continue to 'siliconize' their cameras to integrate more function and cpu horsepower.

I worked at IBM before my current gig, doing chip design work, and the advent of being able to 'package' multiple die on a carrier in a reliable fashion is something they can take advantage of. < do a search for 3d packaging>

Imagine a device that has the CPU, image sensor and extra ram (if needed) and specialty analog IO all in one package.

Now this device can actually do useful analytics with the raw pixel data and not have to slow down the IP streams.

I think there is a strong chance we will see camera hardware commodotize into a sort of "app" platform. The VMS companies will have firmware builds for the common camera hardware vendors which will enable things like better motion detection, camera discovery, settings management and so forth.

On the hardware side it is quickly becoming more about a cost/quality ratio than a features per dollar ratio. It's difficult for a camera company to do much in the sense of advanced features (eg: analytics) because getting all the VMS companies to implement the UI fully and properly is extremely difficult. This makes it hard for Axis, for example, to really compete with their analytics because they can't control the VMS side of the sales equation (Milestone not withstanding). It's no good if your camera does something "cool" but the customer can't effectively use that feature with their software.

However, if you're a VMS company and have control of camera firmware you can implement things however you want. Configuration controls, event notification packets, all that is under your control. You can leverage hardware with DSP's for advanced processing. You can even license things like an analytics library from some of the vendors, but then put the final firmware build together using your own approach.

We are at the point where the "better" systems (those with higher margins going to customers to want more than just bare-bones recording) are being delivered more often using a single-source manufacturer. However it really doesn't make sense for Genetec, for example, to design or build their own cameras. But it does make sense for them (IMO) to have camera firmware for top-tier hardware to give their customers the best possible featureset and user experience.

This makes the hardware standardized, in a sense, and lets users choose from a larger variety of brands, form factors, and cost points, but makes the overall system quasi-proprietary but I don't think it matters at that level.

"I think there is a strong chance we will see camera hardware commodotize into a sort of "app" platform."

Now, you're thinking like Axis circa 2012 :)

When will it come? How can it be made to work well? The Axis app platform has not been much of a success, e.g.

"it really doesn't make sense for Genetec, for example, to design or build their own cameras. But it does make sense for them (IMO) to have camera firmware for top-tier hardware to give their customers the best possible featureset and user experience."

How would that be significantly better than the current integration / optimization process that requires no custom loading of firmware on cameras?

Now, you're thinking like Axis circa 2012 :)

Except that what I mean is the entire firmware build would be custom. More like an "os" than an "app". Sort of like how Dell builds hardware, but the OS is Windows or linux.

How would that be significantly better than the current integration / optimization process that requires no custom loading of firmware on cameras?

Because every camera platform is just a little different when it comes to dealing with advanced things like analytics. How it's configured, how the notifications happen, which parts are handled camera-side vs. which parts are handled VMS-side (like schedules, should the camera only send notifications between 9AM and 5PM, or should the camera report notifications 24/7 and the VMS filters them to only create alerts during a scheduled time).

Over the years of trying to get a complex 3rd party product incorporated into multiple VMS's I've learned that every platform has their own preferred way of doing things. Something they are essentially prevented from using one mechanism because a legacy decision makes it really hard to handle something in a "logical" way, but it's relatively easy to create a work-around.

Also, as much as the camera makers hate this, their brand and UI isn't that significant to the end-user. Genetec IS the security system to the end user and they expect Genetec to look and act the same way, and deliver the same basic features, from all connected cameras. The only way Genetec can do that is to write a lot of drivers (ONVIF isn't going to solve all the higher-complexity use cases for quite some time, if ever) and try to normalize certain experiences across multiple products. They also need to make sure that a new firmware and featureset (like the Axis analytics) doesn't break some previous UI/UX component.

If the cameras have mostly standardized hardware, they are going to by extension have mostly standardized firmware. It may become easier for Genetec to just write their own firmware for some set of "most popular" cameras and that way they can ensure they have exclusive control of how the camera responds to particular commands and delivers data. Genetec, et al, could do more to give the end-user a guaranteed experience and set of features.

But how expensive / time consuming would it be for Genetec to develop its own firmware for each camera? And how would that interact with the camera manufacturer's own firmware, etc.?

But how expensive / time consuming would it be for Genetec to develop its own firmware for each camera?

Probably about the same amount of effort as keeping up with custom drivers for multiple products and making sure new firmware releases from the manufacturers still work properly.

And how would that interact with the camera manufacturer's own firmware, etc.?

It wouldn't interact. The firmware is the OS of the camera, the manufacturers firmware would be a simple "default" but would then be completely wiped out by the VMS firmware.

Probably about the same amount of effort as keeping up with custom drivers for multiple products and making sure new firmware releases from the manufacturers still work properly.

Sounds like you may be tired of writing driver packs. :)

'Everything old is new again' - Funny thing is I've been a Vicon installer/dealer for 25+ (mostly happy) years and had out of neccessity morphed into a Milestone partner. Now of course I'm receiving Vicon emails with Erics name on them. I think he's on to something in the same way that Jobs was at Apple. Every aspect of this industry will have to get easier to impliment and use by the customer and having the imaging device (camera seems old) be an intellgent robot able to inport and work with your app of choice seems natural. Like it or not the remaining highly technical setup aspects of our industry will go away and be replaced by intelligent devices allowing the customer to surveil however he wants to.

I used to work for a hardware manufacturer that used the "industry standard" chipsets that everyone else was using. They wrote their own software and controls to add in their magic, and they did pretty well with the gear. Once they get to a certain size, they branched out and started making everything in house. It was a game changer - margin went up, and they were in complete control.

There are still a few top tier manufacturers making their own chips. I believe this will continue to be a differentiator for them, if you are willing to pay for differentiation.

The outlook for traditional camera manufacturers is poor. Anyone care to suggest what they can do to save themselves?

By traditional camera manufacturer are you talking about our favorite existing western brands or the traditional camera business model? I think you’re talking about our favorite brands, which currently follow a business model that says “sell lots of boxes into a channel forever hungry for more capability at a lower price.” That business model is also known as ‘the race to the bottom,’ that is most likely satisfied by the cheapest possible labor and supply chain brokers. Thus, our favorite western brands do not save themselves in the context of this business model. Our future favorite camera brands are destined to be Asian.

One proposed alternative is to ‘innovate’ our way out of it. But there’s a catch-22: the same channel that claims to want innovation and differentiation is also demanding standardization and interchangeability between components. Only so much innovation is possible within the context of standardization. Besides, what the channel is really asking for when they say innovation is capability. They want more pixels, more gigabytes, lower bit rates, more accurate analytics (as long as they’re interchangeable!), etc. And the new silicon delivers all of those things. Thus, innovation is not the way out either. We’ve already started down the standardization path--alea iacta est.

I’ve always been a systems guy. So the camera is a peripheral component of a larger system. The customer tends to see it that way too. While IPVM readers are rightfully concerned about the state of the camera market, the customers are less so. To them the system is the UI in front of their face, or the VMS they interact with daily. Integrators care about camera features much more so than customers. It’s easy to hold an individual camera in your hand and talk about all of its amazing features, but cameras are typically installed in large groups, which are tied to a head-end system with which the user actually interfaces. Groups of cameras are managed in some uniform way—strictly the responsibility of the VMS. Those specific supposedly ‘differentiating’ camera features get washed through the VMS and come out the other side with said VMS system’s stink all over them. A good VMS will make a commodity camera (assuming it meets certain image quality requirements—which said new silicon provides) much more satisfying to the end user than a poor VMS will make an individually extraordinary camera.

So, what are traditional camera manufactures to do? Continue to play ‘race to the bottom’ and watch sales/profits fall. If they want to be involved in the future of surveillance, they need to be in the VMS business.

Free camera vendor advice of the day: Use standards based chips. Use processors beefy enough to get out of their own way. IPVM sees $3 cameras in China, that means the $1500 cameras in the US should be astoundingly beefy. Provide platforms for decent analytics. Get your compression act together so H.264 isn't so slow and you can turn on TLS. Stop with the minicomputer-era proprietary business practices and embrace open standards (or get out of the way because the brogrammers from Facebook and Google are already out shopping their disruptive camera ideas to VC's...) Use sound standards-based protocols, stop shipping craptastic proprietary API's. It's not cool to get yet another Exacq spam email telling me they now have over 4 billion camera API's served.

What I hear you saying is that the traditional western manufacturers need to make more powerful cameras that will command their higher prices. And they should continue to embrace open standards. (Remember, ONVIF was an invention of the ‘western’ manufactures—Axis et., al)

So what happens when the US manufacturer’s price is undercut by an Asian product with the same performance and is plug compatible due to our open standards? What, exactly, are the western camera manufacturers supposed to be differentiating upon?

1. The application thrust is absolutely correct.

2. VMS working with chip set people like (the wintel or apple type partnership during design) is also on target

3. User API or the results see on the screen by the enduser is also a major winner

4. Ends users control the whole market, they have the money everyone wants. So whats important if there mindset.

5. End to end solutions and integration is a must. End users will want a TYUIO type analytic and view for perimeter.

6. Finally integrator and distribution will go away as it then becomes the enduser and consultant dictating the products to use and the electrical contractor and IT folk will finish it up. The price will be a little cheaper. But that will not be the issue.

7. VMS will become more discriminatory on partners all they way to access contol, audio, data base usage, virtulization, drone tech etc.

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