The Camera is Watching You: VideoIQ Puts Smarts into Surveillance

7/9/08Follow @wroush

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watch for for unusual events, “You don’t really have to monitor them anymore,” Schnell says. “What you’re really doing is responding to threat alerts from the cameras, and only then looking at live video.”

Video IQ has been beta-testing its system at several dozen commercial sites such as big car dealerships, Schnell says, and at some of them, “there’s one individual monitoring literally hundreds of cameras simultaneously.” But that’s no longer such a mind-numbing task, since guards don’t have to stare endlessly at a signal where nothing is going on.

The iCVR has another capability that could make it appealing to organizations that manage more active spaces, such as shopping malls. The company’s analytics software goes beyond the relatively simple task of object tracking—following a blob of pixels as it crosses a camera’s field of view—to what computer vision researchers call “object classification,” meaning it can tell a human from a bird, a tree, or a car, and even keep track of an individual person in the image, provided that he or she is wearing reasonably distinctive clothing or moving in a distinctive way.

That opens up some interesting scenarios, such as the ability to search stored video based on a person’s visual appearance. In one YouTube demonstration video created by VideoIQ, a father loses track of his young daughter in a crowded mall. Security guards are able to find a recorded frame from the moment the father and daughter entered the mall, then click on the daughter’s image and use it as the input for a search of the video data from all of the mall’s cameras, looking for objects with similar shapes, sizes, and motions.

Object tracking in a VideoIQ iCVR video streamIn the video, guards quickly locate the girl in the mall’s play area. In reality, says Schnell, “We’d probably find a dozen little blond girls dressed similarly to the missing one.” But at least that would save security officials from having to review hours of videotape or scan dozens of cameras manually, greatly speeding up the search. “It’s not CSI, it’s not Minority Report,” Schnell says, referring to the way popular media exaggerate the capabilities of surveillance and video-enhancement technologies—a theme that also came up in our recent profile of Brighton, MA-based video analytics company Salient Stills. “But it is a practical technology that will find you the 20 likely needles in the haystack. And it will be up to a person to make the exact pattern match.”

Schnell says VideoIQ will use the new venture infusion (which brings the company’s total financing to $18 million) to ramp up manufacturing of the iCVR and expand the 35-employee company’s sales and marketing operation. The company will also use the funds to perfect a second product—what Schnell calls an “encoder,” meaning everything in VideoIQ’s main product except the camera. It’s designed to allow owners surveillance system owners to upgrade their existing cameras, giving them the same analytics and storage capabilities as the iCVR.

Given the size of the installed base in the surveillance world—millions of cameras covering major urban, commercial, and industrial spaces around the world—Schnell’s probably right when he calls that “a giant opportunity.” And while the prospect of smart video cameras monitoring us everywhere we go can feel both comforting and creepy, the economic logic behind automating video surveillance means that such techniques are only going to grow more powerful and widespread. “We are bringing a tremendous amount of technology to a very old industry and making that technology approachable,” says Schnell. “But we are only at the very beginning.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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