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The Future of Surveillance is 4K: Are You Ready?

For more than a year, surveillance customers have heard a growing drumbeat that insists that 4K surveillance systems represent the direction of the security industry. 4K technology is already very popular in the consumer market, but today the security industry is wondering whether 4K is ready for the stringent demands of the surveillance market. 

Defining 4K

First of all, what is 4K? More than just a buzzword, 4K camera technology truly does offer the highest resolution on the market today. 4K cameras leverage new digital signal processor (DSP) technology and innovative sensors to achieve incredibly high resolution. Advances in imaging sensor technology mean that new 4K cameras can operate at up to 30 frames per second (fps), which means that image quality is significantly improved. Thanks to improved DSPs, the cameras are capable of handling larger image formats than previously possible.

Most 4K cameras utilize 12.1 megapixel sensor technology which outperforms 10 megapixel cameras in both image quality and forensic zoom. While today’s 10 MP cameras have been around for a while, large megapixel cameras still haven’t experienced much success. This is because 10 MP technology provides lower frame rates and weaker light sensitivity while requiring expensive storage systems to handle the high bit-rates generated by their use of H.264 compression technology. 

Perhaps most compelling is the fact that 4K cameras can deliver four times the evidentiary detail of 1080p cameras, leveraging highly advanced digital zoom capabilities to achieve the highest level of detail possible. Like any other technology, today’s 4K cameras offer widely varying levels of performance and features. However, customers who are seeking a higher level of detail should look into advanced 4K surveillance solutions that deliver higher frame rates and greater light sensitivity, but without requiring costly storage platforms. 

Enhancing the User Experience

4K technology is especially beneficial for end users seeking a higher level of situational awareness with more forensic detail. End users who are seeking to secure certain high-risk facilities, such as critical infrastructure sites or casinos, can now install 4K cameras to achieve evidentiary video at a more approachable price point. While these critical areas may have previously been secured using 720p or 1080p cameras, now end users can enjoy superior image quality through 4K cameras – while also staying within budget.

Seamless digital zoom also greatly benefits end users who require a high level of detail. 4K cameras prevent a problem that is common with HD and megapixel cameras: when digitally zooming in on a scene, the video becomes “choppy” or “blocky,” making it difficult to discern valuable details. With 4K, users can zoom in further on an image before experiencing any degradation. As a result of their higher image quality, 4K cameras also can offer more advanced video analytic capabilities. In some scenarios, this results in video analytics with double the detection range.

What makes 4K even more valuable is the fact that some organizations are building their 4K on an open ONVIF platform, so they can be readily integrated with other security and business systems. Those looking to move to 4K solutions should consider a comprehensive package to ensure the most successful installation. A complete, end-to-end system would incorporate several key features: plug-and-play installation, a closely integrated VMS platform, an intuitive drag-and-drop interface that provides ease of use, and adaptive streaming. This type of comprehensive solution can provide a longer product lifecycle and help ensure protection for the end user’s investment.

Market Challenges

Despite its benefits, there are a few barriers to widespread adoption of 4K camera technology. In some facilities, requirements around network and bandwidth use and storage demands can make 4K cameras seem cost-prohibitive. It’s true that the cost of bandwidth and storage does vary widely among 4K providers due to many factors. However, recent technology achievements have made the most advanced 4K solutions significantly more cost effective.

For example, take an end user who wants to run a 4K camera at 30 fps without investing in more storage devices. Using the most advanced 4K products, he or she could operate the camera at 4 Mbps – comparable to a 1080p camera – and require no additional storage. In addition, the end user’s workstation would experience little impact because the decompression rate is similar, depending on the specific camera and how it’s optimized.

Many end users also believe that 4K monitors make 4K technology prohibitively expensive. In fact, users don’t have to invest in 4K monitors to achieve the key 4K benefits such as better forensic digital zoom, even when using legacy monitors with HD1080 resolution. And for those wanting to upgrade to 4K screens, their prices have dropped substantially over the last 12 months. Today, a wide range of 50-inch displays run as low as $500.

All things considered, 4K cameras are already poised to be a smart investment for many end users—not only now, but for years to come.

4K is the Future

As 4K cameras become more widely accepted throughout the security industry, end users are beginning to understand how their facility can benefit from their superior image detail. For many end users, the advantages make upgrading to 4K devices worthwhile – especially in facilities that would not require additional infrastructure investment.

However, education is still important and the security industry is notorious for being a bit slow to evolve – just look at the transition from analog to IP – and full acceptance of 4K might take a few more years. But with superior image quality, an attractive cost of ownership and strong return-on-investment, it’s becoming increasingly likely that 4K cameras will become mainstream in no time at all.

Ed Thompson is CTO for DVTEL, Inc

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