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Greater detail: video security's 4K evolution

Video security cameras are increasingly used in a wide spectrum of applications – from city streets, shopping precincts, transport hubs and public spaces to educational establishments and business facilities.

IP cameras are increasingly popular, transmitting video images as packets of digital data across office networks and the Internet, with video, audio, and control signals carried through a single cable.

There’s also ever-increasing demand for more sophisticated cameras that can see more detail like distant faces and car license plates. Manufacturers have responded by developing cameras with higher resolution, moving from Standard Definition to HD. Today, 4K (3840 x 2160) cameras have entered the security market, offering four times the resolution of Full HD (1920 x 1080).

The SNC-VM772R is Sony’s first ever 4K network camera. Hear the first-person experiences of our product planning and engineering teams during the development of this ground-breaking product, made possible by unprecedented collaboration between a wide range of technical specialists.

From left to right: Daisuke Fujii (Product Planning), Tomoyuki Mizutani (Design PL), Tomomasa Mizuno (Mechanical design), Takahiro Koyama (Software)

Facing a new design challenge

Daisuke Fujii: An early challenge in developing our first 4K camera was sensitivity. With video security it’s not about beautiful images; it’s more about ‘visibility’ – seeing subjects in tricky environments like night-time or with strong backlighting. Resolution is higher with 4K: and that means more pixels, but with less light hitting each pixel. This hampers sensitivity and hence the visibility of your image in low light.

We’re a camera manufacturer developing our own image sensor, lens and many other technologies too. So our concept was to create a 4K camera that combines high resolution and high sensitivity, even in low light. And in keeping with other Sony security cameras, we also knew that easy installation and reduced security system costs were key pillars of the design.

Facing a new design challenge

Balancing resolution and sensitivity

Tomoyuki Mizutani: This was the first time we’d used our 1.0-type Exmor R™ CMOS image sensor in a security camera. In addition to its larger size, the back-illuminated structure places the metal wires – that usually partially block incident light – behind the photo diodes. This dramatically improves image quality in the dark, which was an issue with other 4K cameras in the market. We were able to achieve an industry-leading 0.06 lx sensitivity without sacrificing true 4K resolution. For comparison, moonlight is about 0.1 lx.

The image sensor itself has 20 megapixels (5,472 x 3,648) – that’s far more than 4K resolution. To make full use of this, we teamed it with a specially designed lens and signal processing engine that harness technology from our consumer and professional cameras. As a result we’ve been able to achieve sharp, undistorted images even at the periphery of the lens where blur and resolution normally drop.

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Easier installation

Tomomasa Mizuno: Higher resolution and higher sensitivity inevitably demand a larger sensor and lens optics, which means a bigger, heavier camera. We wanted to make sure this camera was easier to install than our competitors – and for this product we used a process called ‘lean startup’. We developed a hypothesis on how and where the product would be used, right from the initial product concept stage. We showed our customers a preliminary prototype and explanatory diagrams. This allowed us to shorten lead time by helping us pinpoint features that were going to be vital to the customer.

We visited customers in Japan and overseas to experience installation procedures ourselves. Normally, security cameras are installed after attaching the mounting plates to a wall or ceiling and performing the wiring. By seeing this at first hand, we learned the difficulties of holding the camera with one hand while turning the screws and wiring cables with the other. To solve this issue, we incorporated a strap that holds the camera and mounting plate together during the wiring, plus a feature that allows the camera and plate to be easily attached before screwing. These features allow integrators to use both hands during the installation. To check whether it really works, we asked several people at Sony with no installation experience to try it themselves. And to our surprise, they did it in half the time it takes with conventional cameras! We’ve been receiving compliments from customers on the reduction of installation time and are pleased about this new feature.

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Reducing security system costs

Daisuke Fujii: As the market moves towards higher resolution cameras, customers are concerned about the effects on increased bandwidth and data storage costs. We responded to this by developing Intelligent Coding: this saves up to 50% network bandwidth by using different compression ratios for areas of interest and other parts of the image. We also developed Intelligent Cropping reduces data needs by cropping areas of interest from the 4K original.

In the real world, sometimes you just record everything and watch out for irregular events. But in some applications – like airports – you need to monitor massive numbers of images at the same time. After discussing these typical use cases, we made it easy for customers to select these new features without having to adjust complex settings.

Combining consumer and professional know-how

Takahiro Koyama: With this camera we combined a typical development approach for consumer products – where speed to market is key – with a process for development of professional products, where the focus is more on durability and reliability for long-term use. Combining them gave us the best of both worlds.

Daisuke Fujii: We asked our R&D division for advice on compressing large amounts of 4K data. Security cameras need low bit rates while maintaining image quality – in contrast with consumer cameras where the beauty of images comes first. It was a challenge to bridge this gap.

Tomoyuki Mizutani: Of all the projects I’ve been involved in, this was one of the largest in terms of people working in cooperation. As well as electrical, mechanical and software engineers, there were experts from many different fields: to ensure the lens captures the full quality of the 20 megapixel image sensor; to optimise images for surveillance applications; the codec technology, signal processing and so on. Working with leaders in each field helped me rediscover the range and depth of expertise we have at Sony, including consumer technology – I think this symbolises our technical strength as a company.

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