Are megapixel and 4K cameras lowering required camera counts?
We have all heard the sales pitch: Use of megapixel cameras lowers the camera count needed to provide adequate video coverage, thus making the overall system less expensive. Use of fewer cameras equates to less infrastructure, bandwidth and storage, according to the claims, and megapixel cameras provide enough detail that you don’t miss anything using fewer cameras. It’s a compelling pitch, but one that has sometimes been questioned in the market. To look beyond the marketing hype, we asked our Expert Panel: How effectively can megapixel cameras take the place of multiple standard-resolution cameras? Has the ability of megapixel technology to lower the required camera count been overstated (or oversold) in the market? Some of the answers may surprise you.
Megapixel cameras have two main benefits: first of all, providing better image quality; secondly replacing a few lower resolution cameras with one. The improved image quality is by far the most important driver to the shift over to megapixel and HDTV technology. While there are some applications for replacing cameras (one camera covering two cash register lines), less cameras covering the parking lot, those are relatively few. One application where a megapixel camera is used to cover a large area is when using panoramic cameras, but often they are used in addition to the previous camera count.
Megapixel, high-definition (HD) and 4K Ultra HDTV (4K) camera technology can absolutely take the place of multiple standard-resolution cameras, and fewer cameras can equal significant cost savings for the end user. In a stadium or large parking lot, reducing the total number of cameras also means a lower total cost of ownership (TCO). Megapixel, HD and 4K offer a wider coverage area by a single camera; longer distance coverage by a single camera, and a reduced TCO by effectively reducing the total number of cameras required for the installation. The ability of megapixel technology to lower the required camera count for specific applications is very real [and has not been overstated in the market]. For example, in a large retail parking lot setting, 4K resolution can effectively reduce the number of cameras needed from 70 HD cameras to 21 4K cameras due to ultra-wide coverage and ultra-high resolution capabilities.
Reduction of cameras is very real in most professional surveillance projects when deploying megapixel cameras. We have seen amazing results in all vertical markets. For banking, one camera can cover more than one teller window vs. one camera for each teller. ATM lobbies can be covered with one camera vs. four in the past. Loading docks in distribution centres or manufacturing facilities can be covered with one multisensor 180-degree panoramic vs. 6 to 12 single sensor cameras. Parking lots that took 20 or more cameras to get relatively weak coverage can be updated with 6 cameras that will deliver excellent image quality, situational awareness, and license plate identification at the entrances and exits. The reduction in the number of cameras delivers major cost savings, too. With fewer cameras, the installation costs, VMS/NVR licence fees, network cables, number of connections to the network switch, and many other costs are also reduced.
Integrators often utilise just as many megapixel cameras as they did when using standard resolution cameras for the same application. However, the customer is now getting sharp high-resolution images that provide much greater detail within a similar field of view as compared to the historical standard resolution cameras. Megapixel technology often doesn’t lower the required camera count. In fact, the number of cameras used has increased on many sites as cameras are being added not only in support of security but as sensors in support of applications outside of security with the use of video analytics (e.g. business intelligence, traffic management, etc.).
Since megapixel cameras appeared on the market there have been exaggerated claims of how they will replace standard-resolution cameras. But technology limitations such as poor low-light performance, high bandwidth consumption and low frame rate have left many customers disappointed, and they reverted back to multiple cameras, especially for outdoor use. However, the latest cameras offer the same high sensitivity as their full-HD counterparts, with large sensors (1.0 type) delivering up to 20MP resolution in all lighting conditions, and 4K at 30fps, at an astonishing 6-16 mbps. These readily replace multiple standard cameras providing greater detail over a wider area, in all conditions at a far higher standard than was previously possible with an outdoor camera. They also bring the added benefits of lower installation and maintenance costs, and high return on Investment. We just have to wonder what the next technologies will bring.
As the performance of megapixel cameras has increased over time, so have their use and applicability, certainly. Their ability to provide large coverage areas with wide angles and powerful zoom capabilities has made them useful in many situations where multiple standard-resolution cameras were previously used. When a single camera is able to do both – zoom and provide wide-angle views – this typically does reduce camera counts in real life scenarios and can provide cost savings as well. The situation and specific installation(s), of course, dictate what sorts of cameras are best suited to a given situation. A standard-resolution camera may be the best solution if the security system is very basic and/or when powerful zooming and large coverage areas aren’t that important. For example, in rail yards or areas larger than the coverage of one MP-camera, the cost of a MP-camera may not be easily justified.
Although megapixel cameras can take the place of multiple standard resolution camera counts in some applications, yes, the claim that they can lower standard resolution camera counts in all applications is overstated, oversold and outright misleading. The origin of this claim is ROI claims. Since IP cameras were – and generally still are – more expensive than analogue ones, for a lot of customers, just replacing one camera with one IP camera couldn't be justified in terms of marginally better picture quality. As greater and greater resolutions became available on IP cameras, the claims grew. Here is one issue with this claim: One megapixel camera mounted in one location has one large, but fixed field of view; however, multiple cameras, even in lower resolution, can be placed at multiple sites to give specific targeted views. Other considerations are the need for additional bandwidth and storage, lower frame rates, and difficulty running analytics.
As is often the case in our industry, the answers to these questions depend on the application. Our Expert Panellists point to several real-world examples illustrating how a megapixel camera might take (or, in fact, has taken) the place of multiple standard resolution cameras. The problem comes when one seeks to extrapolate, generalise and quantify those successes into a number; i.e., you can use this many fewer cameras (implication: in any application). Can we concede that the number of needed cameras (of any type) for a given application is solely dependent on the needs of the application? If so, what’s the harm in listing a lower camera count as one of the possible benefits of megapixel technology?
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