Understanding 4K ultra HD
In the last year, there has been a lot of talk about the 4K ultra HD video standard and what it means to the security industry. While the conversation may have started prior to last year’s ISC West, the show certainly provided a lot of momentum, with many manufacturers introducing at least one camera using 4K resolution — or talking about doing so in the immediate future.
For integrators, the big question surrounding this technology remains, “Is there actually a market for 4K in security?” Yes and no. There are applications for which 4K video would work very well, and even some where it is currently filling a need. But 4K, at least for now, is not ready for widespread use in the security market. Nor is the majority of the market ready for 4K.
4K has gained some traction in the consumer industry, which often serves as a proving ground of sorts for security technologies. But even consumer adoption has remained relatively limited, due in large part to the cost of hardware and the limited availability of 4K content.
That said, 4K’s day in security is coming. While there are currently 4K cameras available, manufacturers are mostly taking their time to make sure they get it right the first time. Despite the temptation to seize on the buzz by flooding the market with 4K cameras, there is a very real fear of overpromising and under-delivering, which could end up making 4K a tough sell for a long time.
“When the industry first came out with megapixel cameras, networks were not capable of handling that volume,” says Jeff Whitney, vice president of marketing for Glendale, Calif.-based Arecont Vision. “There are already some 4K cameras on the market. The major vendors have thought it through the right way with careful research and development; but others, you have to wonder if they were rushed. For an integrator, the fear is that the customer sees the hype and says, ‘I need that,’ and the only choice you have is a second- or third-tier manufacturer. And no one is going to tell you there may be a risk with their camera.”
So while it’s slowly making its way into the security industry, now is a great time for integrators to think about 4K, including the challenges associated with the technology and, of course, how to make money with it.
First things first: 4K is not for widespread use in security, at least for the moment. For starters, the cameras themselves carry a higher price tag than non-4K models, which is to be expected.
“It’s like when 2 megapixel cameras were introduced. There are certain needs for it, and like any technology, the price is going to be high at first,” says Scott Schafer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Arecont Vision. “But the performance is going to be incredible. The quality is amazing and the frame rate is stellar.”
Potential applications include situations where end users need the ability to digitally zoom in on areas of a scene without losing the wider field of view, but there’s no reason 4K needs to be applied enterprise-wide, says Sean Murphy, regional marketing manager for video systems for Fairport, N.Y.-based Bosch Security Systems Inc.
“This level of resolution may not be needed for every area of a facility, but it is ideal for covering large areas — such as inside an arena or stadium bowl, transportation facility, or large retail store — where identifying objects at a great distance is necessary,” he says. “Cameras that deliver 4K ultra HD resolution should be considered one of the tools in the integrator’s toolbox.”
The more detailed, higher frame rate images 4K delivers do provide incredibly useful information for improving identification and post-event analysis capabilities; but with these benefits come the corresponding increase in video data volume that has to be transported from the camera to the head end for storage and/or monitoring. Murphy offers a relatively easy-to-implement solution for dealing with these challenges in the near term.
“This impact can be limited by lowering bitrates for 4K ultra HD images,” he says. “The best place to do this is at the source: in the camera. Bitrates can be lowered, in part, by reducing image noise. Noise can be interpreted as motion, which can lead to exaggerated bitrates for a given image.”
Technically 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p and eight times the bandwidth and resolution of 720p. The effects of these increases may not be readily apparent at a particular site, but could certainly become an issue for other locations, says Fredrik Nilsson, general manager for Chelmsford, Mass.-based Axis Communications.
“While bandwidth is rarely a problem within a facility, it is definitely a sacred resource for some remote locations. If you implement many 4K cameras, it could even put some stress on an internal network, so be sure it is properly designed,” he says. “Storage is also something to consider when budgeting the system. For some applications it might simply be better, and similar cost, to use a couple of 1080P or 720P cameras instead of one 4K camera.”
H.264 video compression format does help to make 4K video more bandwidth- and storage-friendly, but it’s important for integrators to know that there are still going to be impacts on both bandwidth and storage with 4K.
“With the cost of storage dropping rapidly, and with new H.265 compression technology enabling high-data transmission, these challenges will disappear — providing a higher level of security for users of 4K technology,” says Tom Cook, vice president of sales, North America, for Ridgefield Park, N.J.-based Samsung Techwin America. For more on the emerging H.265 standard, see “Help is on the Way?” on page 76.
The inherent size of 4K video files is just one reason bandwidth and storage concerns come into play. Another is a scourge that should be familiar to anyone who’s worked with high-resolution video: light.
“As with any high-resolution camera, the light sensitivity is somewhat lower than on lower resolution cameras,” Nilsson says. “Additionally 4K cameras have just started to ship, so only a few versions and types are available at this time. Then of course, the bandwidth and storage will increase, which will increase the cost for the surveillance system,” Nilsson says.
To combat these issues, Nilsson offers three suggestions: compare different vendors’ offerings; ensure that a camera follows the Ultra HD standard (see “Ultra HD Standards” below); and make sure there is appropriate illumination for the scenario in which the camera will be used.
One method Cook suggests integrators use for addressing these issues is to look for cameras that enable creation of multiple crop areas with the ability to assign differing resolutions to various areas of an image.
While 4K continues to make strides in security, leading video management system (VMS) providers are working to keep pace with the technology to ensure they will work with equipment using this new standard. However, that isn’t necessarily the case across the board.
“With regards to integration into VMS, not all VMS are ready and equipped to handle 4K,” Schafer says.
That’s why it’s important to verify that any 4K cameras being deployed can be integrated with a customer’s VMS. The fix, Cook says, can be as simple as updating the software or installing a new driver to support 4K.
The challenges associated with 4K may seem daunting today, but each will be addressed and most likely eliminated over time. For integrators looking to add value to their offerings, 4K will provide an opportunity to do just that and capitalize on a technology that is growing in popularity.
“Ultimately, the market will adopt the 4K format because of its higher-megapixel capabilities, even before H.265 is in place,” Cook says. “We are expecting that 4K will be adopted quickly in the current H.264 format in 2015. Since 4K will enable end users to see a wider field of view, it will potentially be a cost-saving product versus multi-sensor camera products for wide-area applications such as outdoor parking lots.”
Possible selling points for 4K include the ability to reduce costs by replacing multiple cameras with a single camera, as well as significant improvements in video analytic capabilities and more effective forensic investigations. And for integrators who invest the time in learning about 4K, install it where it is most appropriate today and prepare for the day when its deployment is more widespread, the potential reward for that investment could be substantial.
“4K ultra HD resolution is not the end point. It’s the next step in the evolution of video surveillance, but we’ll continue to see development of higher and higher resolutions to meet the market’s demand for more detailed images for security surveillance,” Murphy says.
For now, however, 4K seems to be the way. Yes, 8K resolution does exist, but it’s safe to say it’s a very, very long shot to make any impact on security. For now, at least.
Sidebar: Help Is on the Way?
Along with the discussion of 4K and its current relevance to security, there is a parallel discussion about H.265, the compression codec currently in the works that, when completed, promises to make 4K a more realistic solution for more applications.
“H.265 defines a set of standards that relate to features. In order to get the compression benefits of H.265, all of these features need to be implemented,” Bosch Security Systems’ Sean Murphy says. “As a result, there’s a difference between being H.265 compliant and providing a useful H.265 solution. We should start seeing hardware accelerated chips available later this year. From the time chips are available, it will take another development cycle before integrators begin to see the technology available in end products.”
In addition to lessening the impact of 4K video on bandwidth and storage, H.265 also promises the ability to enable transcoding to make higher-resolution images available for viewing on tablets or smartphones. However, H.265 won’t happen overnight.
“The surveillance industry has a history of improving compression from JPEG to MPEG-4, to H.264 and eventually to H.265,” says Fredrik Nilsson of Axis Communications. “H.265 promises some 50 percent improvement over current H.264, but that will take some time to achieve, to get support in a broad line of cameras as well as video management systems.”
One stalling point is server technology, which Tom Cook of Samsung Techwin America says is not yet powerful enough to support H.265. As a result, H.265 may be a bit farther away from reality than some may have anticipated.
“Adoption of this new compression format will begin to gain traction in early 2016. To ensure success, VMS companies will need to develop additional drivers that can support and compress both H.264 and H.265 at the same time, which creates a load on the server,” he says. “There is a cost involved in adopting H.265; it is important to educate the industry that it will require more server capability for processing.
Sidebar: Ultra HD Standards
One of the leading standards governing 4K Ultra HD is SMPTE ST 2036-1 UHDTV. Created by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), this standard provides the following specifications for cameras that use 4K:
- 2160p resolution (3,384 pixels wide x 2,160 pixels tall)
- High color fidelity
- 16:9 format
- Progressive scanning at 25 or 30 frames per second (25 or 30 Hz)