THE MAGAZINE

Bulking Up Video Surveillance

By Peter Piazza

Exercise devotees want to head to the gyms whenever they have the chance, whether early in the morning or late in the evening. The long hours offered by gyms are, therefore, more than just a convenience: they can make or break a business. But the extended accessibility, although a boon for fitness buffs, creates difficulties for gym owners who can't always be on hand to oversee their properties.

The owners of Powerhouse Gyms International, a Farmington Hills, Michigan-based chain of gyms with hundreds of facilities around the United States and the world, wanted to find a way to help its licensees keep an eye on business without having to be present. Henry Dabish, chief operating officer of the firm, says that he decided last year to look for a CCTV system that could be viewed by gym owners remotely and that could be installed in new facilities or put in existing buildings to replace older tape-based systems. He searched online and at trade shows and ultimately went to Powerhouse's computer consultants, Computer Builders Warehouse (CBW), for advice. CBW pointed them to Security and Monitoring Systems (SAM) Inc., a Michigan company, spun off from CBW in late 2001.

Developed to work on Microsoft's .NET platform, SAM allows for monitoring of cameras from any computer connected to the Internet. Dabish decided to try the system out on two facilities. He says that the first order of business was to install new cameras, because the black-and-white cameras in place were analog and wouldn't work with the digital system. Dabish bought Axcess digital cameras that were approved to work with SAM.

At the Farmington Hills headquarters, four cameras were installed to view several entry/exit doors, the pro-shop counter, and the gym. At the other facility, a gym in Highland Park, an urban location, eight cameras were installed in similar spots and some were placed outside to address potential crime problems or loitering. At both locations, the cameras at the counters watch over transactions, creating a record that can be viewed later if there are concerns about theft; they also establish a record of how customers are being treated. In the gyms, cameras are used to capture evidence of equipment abuse.

Another camera was set up outside the headquarters' main door. This camera allows the receptionist at the Farmington Hills facility to see who is at the door. The receptionist accesses the camera images by clicking on an icon on the Internet Explorer Web browser; that takes him or her to a password-protected Web site. When someone rings the bell for entry, the receptionist can quickly and securely log into the video feed to see who is there.

CBW sent out technicians to install the cameras and link them to the cable-modem connection to the Internet at both sites, a process that Dabish says went smoothly. The only glitches that arose were that at one of the locations, the technicians needed to contact the Internet service provider to get IP addresses added for the additional cameras on the network, while at another location, an extra router needed to be installed.

A small software client was installed on several computers, including Dabish's, allowing the feeds from multiple cameras to be accessed by authorized users without accessing a Web browser. This client, says Nick Brookins, SAM's chief technology officer, offers significant advantages over the browser interface.

The first of these, says Brookins, is a way of saving bandwidth to provide power users like Dabish with images from multiple cameras simultaneously. In a typical configuration of this type, where a user wants to view multiple camera feeds, the high-resolution images are sent to the desktop, even though the thumbnail images are displayed in lower resolutions. "Our system is smart enough to see that the user is only watching at this resolution," Brookins says, so the system scales down the resolution before it gets sent rather than after. "That's letting the user watch four cameras for the price of one," he says, adding that this can result in tremendous savings when a company is using an expensive leased line.

Another advantage, Brookins says, is SAM's proprietary technology called network video tunneling. He explains that in the typical configuration, when multiple users at a single location are able to see video streams, each person opening the feed is accessing a separate instance of the video--and using up a separate share of the network's bandwidth--even though they're all looking at the same thing. With network video tunneling, when a second user logs into the SAM system, the system realizes that both are watching the same video, "and redirects the second user back to the first. The first user retransmits on a peer-to-peer basis, so now, in effect, they're watching the same, synchronized live video, and they're only using the bandwidth of the first person."

If additional viewers log in, the system continues the process, so that multiple users can watch with the same performance and quality as if only a single person were watching--and without using extra bandwidth. In addition, archived video can be searched by date and camera number, and users can simultaneously watch live video in one window and archived video in another.

SAM also includes some other functions. For example, it has power-over-Ethernet connectors that Brookins says "allow you to send the power for virtually any network camera across the same data line," so that A/C power does not need to be installed near each camera. And the system adds to fixed cameras, such as those in Powerhouse Gyms, the ability to use digital pan and zoom features within the context of the image captured by the fixed camera. This allows users to move across or enlarge an image when necessary. While quality suffers as compared to an optical zoom, fixed cameras tend to be much less expensive than PTZ cameras with optical zoom lenses. (In the future Dabish intends to upgrade his cameras to add PTZ.)

Dabish says that having digital cameras and digital recording capability has solved a multitude of problems created by the previous tape-storage system, such as staff forgetting to put in or change tapes, and tapes running out after a few days. The SAM system can record at least a month's worth of video using MPEG4 format before it starts erasing older data. The 200 GB hard drive is hot swappable; if it fails, the system automatically switches to a second drive, and the failed drive can be replaced without bringing the system down, Brookins says.

The system also has a flexible frame-rate feature. Dabish uses the flexible frame rate differently for each location. For example, a camera that is aimed at a rarely used back door in the pro shop records at 1 fps (frame per second), while those cameras aimed at the main entry doors record at 6-8 fps.

Future upgrades to the system will allow SAM to perform additional access-control functions, Brookins says. He describes these as small add-on modules that will provide either inputs or outputs. The former will allow the system to connect to security features such as door sensors, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, so that when a sensor is triggered, the system can perform some action, such as starting to record, increasing the frame rate, or even e-mailing a supervisor. The outputs allow, for example, someone watching a video feed to perform an action, such as electronically unlocking a door.

Price plans for SAM range from $3,000 to as much as $40,000, says Gene Thomas, CEO of SAM Systems, depending on how many cameras are in use (prices also depend on how much setup and installation the dealer needs to do). Updates, such as patches, are available for free, while an upgrade service is available for an annual subscription fee that costs Dabish several hundred dollars per year. Dabish says that he likes the system so much that he's making SAM Systems a preferred vendor, which encourages licensees of the company's gyms to use the system.

The system has proved its worth in many ways, Dabish says. "It helps with any disputes or when inventory is missing; we can have someone check it out and see what's going on." The new cameras and the ability to have gym owners watching around the clock, or going back and looking at video archives, have created a deterrent to crime as well. "Having the staff know that they're being watched by a high-tech system clears up a lot of problems off the bat," he says.

(For more information: Gene Thomas, president and CEO, SAM Systems Inc.; phone: 586/353-4726; email: gthomas@securityandmonitoring.com)


--Peter Piazza is assistant editor at Security Management.

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