Analyzing the IP Megapixel Race: Good or Bad?
As the race for higher and higher megapixels begins to slow down, another ‘race’ begins to speed up — that of higher picture quality no matter what the megapixel count.
While analog may still comprise the majority of already installed video security systems, IP cameras are not only here to stay, but there will come a day when they make up the majority of installations. In the IP arena, HD and megapixel are gobbling up greater market share. In fact, IMS Research forecasts that more than 70 percent of all network cameras sold in 2015 will be megapixel cameras.
“Pricing has become more favorable for HD cameras, and people are buying them and setting them up on their network. Like any technology, the price drops,” says Rob Ledenko, executive vice president of San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based IQinVision. “Analog as a whole is very strong, and lots of people still believe in that technology, so there’s still growth there.”
Without a doubt, the biggest trend in high-resolution video has been the development of multi-megapixel cameras. And unless you’ve been in the rainforest for the last 12 to 18 months, you’re no doubt aware of the one-upmanship between manufacturers to release the highest-megapixel cameras — creating what’s become known as the “megapixel race.”
The Race Is on
High-megapixel cameras are a necessity in some applications that require wide surveillance of a large area and/or a large number of people, such as large perimeter areas or sporting venues (see related article, “Dream Team: HD/Megapixel at the Stadium,” on page 118), where users can zoom in on smaller areas of the image while maintaining clarity. But for the bulk of installations, the requirements are more moderate.
“Right now, what’s available is good enough for what we have today,” Ledenko says. “A retail location, like a 7-11 or a Subway, doesn’t need more detail with more megapixels because of the size of the store. The application really is what’s telling you what type of camera and how many megapixels you need.”
For some, the drive for higher and higher is less about end user need than it is about generating sales.
“Higher megapixel cameras are a great marketing tool and in many cases do offer increased performance and benefits,” says Ian Siemer, director of marketing at OpenEye, based in Liberty Lake, Wash. “Who knows what the cap could be on megapixel counts for cameras? I think we’re already seeing a practical cap for mainstream applications of 5 to 10 megapixels. But even this could increase as new technologies are developed and if storage prices begin to drop again.”
For others, the focus on megapixels is just plain misguided.
“My issue with higher megapixel cameras is that instead of using more imagination, people have decided to run up the resolution flag — 5, 20, 50, even gigapixel,” says Ian Johnston, CEO of Innovative Security Designs (ISD) in Irvine, Calif. “It’s not inherently bad, but when you look at a camera in a system, you can put an interesting 16-megapixel sensor on a camera, but in order to capture all those pixels, the sensor has to be small. The pixels are so small that lenses have a hard time resolving to pixels. So the spatial resolution is still pretty low although physical resolution is high. Analog guys understand that.”
The megapixel race naturally follows a similar trend seen with digital cameras in the consumer electronics space where manufacturers competed for bragging rights as to whose camera delivered the most megapixels. But that race seems to have plateaued and settled at a manageable point for the majority of consumers. It all comes down to a point of diminishing returns, says Mark Collett, general manager, security systems, for Sony Electronics in Park Ridge, N.J.
“People have started to realize that when they want to upload a photo to Facebook, for example, a 1 MB raw image file is overload because it takes so long to upload,” he says.
In a security installation, it’s up to the installer or integrator to rein in an end user and determine what’s appropriate for a particular application. “The installer needs to ask, ‘Do you really need a 10 to 20 megapixel image?’” says Steve Gorski, general manager, Americas for New York-based Mobotix. “Are we focusing on what customers need?”
All of this begs the multi-million-dollar question: Is the race still on, and will it continue? Edward Wassall, chief technologist, IP product development/application engineering for Ridgefield Park, N.J.-based Samsung Techwin America, says yes — but not for long.
“Unfortunately it will continue to trend up but only for a short time,” he says. “End users have already figured out that a 3 megapixel camera at 2048 x 1536 can give them all the quality and visibility needed without the negative effects of network bandwidth constraints associated with the higher megapixel-count camera technology.”
Robert Kramer, product manager, security products for Panasonic in Secaucus, N.Y., agrees, adding that the race most likely will start up again in the future. “Right now, 2- and 3-megapixel cameras seem to be embraced in the marketplace,” he says. “As manufacturers get better at addressing bandwidth utilization, network components, storage requirements and decoding technologies, more higher-megapixel formats will emerge.”
As the upward trend in the megapixel game cools, there is another, more important, race on the horizon, says Fredrik Nilsson, general manager, Axis Communications, located in Chelmsford, Mass. “The race to increase megapixels toned down a little last year,” Nilsson says. “We’ve seen the drive to 20, 40 and 100 megapixels, but we seem to be stuck there. Customers don’t care unless there’s value in those higher numbers. The race to megapixels has moved to a race to picture quality.”
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Nilsson’s take on the “next race” echoes IMS Research’s projection of a renewed emphasis on image quality in 2012. The main issue is customer need, and as we all know, the amount of image detail required in general surveillance applications varies wildly from situation to situation and customer to customer. And those requirements are, for the most part, much lower than stadiums, borders and other wide area surveillance situations.
“It’s important to recognize that there’s a tradeoff for utilizing higher megapixel cameras,” Siemer says. “They require more storage space and network bandwidth and often necessitate lower frame rates. Furthermore, it’s critical to remember that often the increase in resolution doesn’t correlate with an increase in sensor or lens size. This reduces the ability of each pixel in the sensor to collect and record light and can lead to increased noise in an image and a net gain of only a small portion of the overall stated increase in recording resolution.”
There are a number of technology factors that may be causing manufacturers to back off the “more is better” mantra, Wassall says. “We already see problems today that manifest themselves in the display technology related to resolution,” he says. “It’s very difficult to find a monitoring device that can support resolutions over 3 megapixels. Another negative factor to consider is the availability of lens structures capable of supporting the higher megapixel-count cameras. I liken it to having a Corvette with a Vega engine; it looks good but doesn’t perform to its full potential.”
Ah, lenses, which just may be the single most limiting — and often most overlooked — factor in HD and high-megapixel cameras. Price has a lot to do with this, Nilsson explains. “It’s incredibly important to match the lens with the quality of the camera, but an 8 to 10 megapixel lens can cost you $4,000 to $5,000,” he says.
The issue of not matching lenses to camera capability is one is one that Johnston, who comes from the printing and photography industries, just can’t understand. “For whatever reason, customers are willing to pay $1,000 for camera and $40 for lens,” he says. “In the photography world, it’s opposite. A lot of photographers will buy a relatively inexpensive camera body and then buy a $2,000 lens. Everything boils down to the lens, but in the security world, lenses have been a throwaway. But that’s changing as lenses are becoming integrated with cameras.”
In many ways, the lens, combined with the camera’s technological “guts,” are the major determining factors in the quality of an image, regardless of the number of megapixels on the sensor.
The Road Ahead
So what does the future hold for HD and megapixel cameras? Obviously, continued price drops combined with improvements in features and performance will lead to greater adoption.
“The future is very bright,” Kramer says. “As camera and image sensor technology increases and network components and products continue to expand, the result will be higher picture and image quality for HD and megapixel IP cameras.”
However, the single greatest driving force that will determine the direction of HD and megapixel cameras going forward has nothing to do with technology, Ledenko says. “If customers are asking for it and want it, we need to give it to them,” he believes. “The industry over the next 18 months is going to be changing rapidly.”
Dream Team: HD/Megapixel at the Stadium
Because of the sheer size of their area to be covered and the need to be able to zoom in on that large field of vision to view finer details, sports arenas are one application in which HD and megapixel cameras shine.
“These venues are a much different animal than general surveillance,” says Ian Johnson of ISD. “Because of the highly complex nature, things can happen anywhere randomly, so you have to capture everything and be able to go back within seconds to clarify images.”
This is where HD and megapixel come in. “Detection means protection,” says OpenEye’s Ian Siemer. “In venues like these, there’s most often live monitoring of video and events, so higher-resolution images make it easier to cover large areas and more accurately assess incidents remotely.”
Like any surveillance application, there’s a lot that has to go into the behind-the-scenes planning.
“Higher-resolution video is very beneficial in installations such as these. Equally important, however, is a powerful and scalable VMS,” Siemer says. “It’s also important to remember that HD and megapixel video streams can be very taxing on both networks and storage.”
Because of the many unique challenges these installations present, sports venues aren’t for everyone, says IQinVision’s Rob Ledenko. “Most installations were typically done originally for analog, so you have an existing infrastructure of power, coax and control cables,” he says. “Re-running a different infrastructure to that point is difficult because the cables are usually in a conduit that’s been enhardened.”
With day and night games the norm, lighting issues and outdoor venues naturally go hand-in-hand, Ledenko explains. “For night applications, you need some type of illumination, particularly for a longer-distance shot,” he says. “You might go through three or four light changes between the camera and the scene. If the lighting is not right or if you’re stretching to get a better view, then you’re going to get a grainy picture.”
In a stadium setting, there’s little or no room for error or downtime. One thing many installers and integrators might not consider is the post-sale time commitment of a stadium installation, which can quickly erode whatever margins have been made from the project, Johnston says.
“For big games, the technology can’t go wrong, and it’s non-trivial to have systems that won’t go out,” he says. “Understand the commitment it takes, which often means being on site and being a part of the security team on game days. So even though you’ve made decent margins on the hardware, service can eat that up pretty quickly.”
As with any outdoor installation, weather plays a major role in a stadium setting and can adversely affect both uptime and clarity of images. Ledenko offers a solution he’s drawn from his previous experience in airport security. “Thermal imaging can work well because it detects heat signature, which you can still see in the driving rain, for example,” he says.