I WENT to see Axis Camera Companion at the Four Points Sheraton in Sydney, where a lineup of tech journos joined the Axis Sydney team for a short presentation of the new system, and enjoyed an opportunity to try installing Camera Companion for themselves.
Given I have a once-expensive NAS tucked discreetly behind my TV at home, the heart of the-great-wireless-network-that-never-was, news of this opportunity for potential technical humiliation did not thrill. In the event, I needn’t have worried. Camera Companion is smarter than I am and in wizardly fashion really only needs a human to confirm that now it should do what it already knows how to do.
Delivering the presentation was Axis’ South Pacific manager, Wai King Wong, who applied the broad brush to the recent history of CCTV systems. The key observation Wong made in his address was that Camera Companion is a 16-camera DVR replacement that can be installed by pretty much anyone.
“Systems need to be easy and fast to install, easy to access, they need to be affordable, efficient,” Wong told his breakfasting audience.
“Our cameras are literally a PC, they have all the processing power onboard, they can store images, they can handle analytics. The management software is inside the camera – it’s operated through a web browser like an app.”
Wong explained that Camera Companion is designed for small installations – not for city airports or large sites but was perfect for small stores, video stores, gas stations, hotels, restaurants. He suggested it’s the easiest system in the market to install and I later found myself agreeing.
“What is different about this solution?” asked Wong. “A DVR is a PC, a single point of failure. Axis Companion has the management software onboard the camera and the storage onboard the camera. A 32GB microSD card handles storage. There’s no single point of failure as there is with a DVR.
“This system works with any standard off the shelf or legacy network gear, it’s PoE and there are guides for installation online. You can do a setup in less than 10 minutes. When it comes to functionality, you can view images, search events and take snapshots.
“Video clips and snapshots can be easily exported to colleagues and authorities, and the system supports third-party apps for viewing live and recorded video on leading smartphones and tablets, such as iPhone, iPad and Android devices.”
Importantly, while you use a laptop to set the system up, once that’s done the camera functions without intervention from the user and can be access from anywhere using a range of devices.
It’s fair to say that Camera Companion combines network infrastructure and network storage with a drizzle of surveillance hardware on top. That essential network infrastructure already exists in almost every home and business across the land, as Wong very correctly observed. In fact, it’s leveraging this existing capability that really defines Camera Companion’s architecture.
“Most businesses and homes already have internet and a switch or router,” he explained. “With Camera Companion You don’t need an extra box, a PC, everything connects to the switch. It is very easy. You can plug into any NAS you want – we have an Iomega NAS – or you can use the 32GB microSD card in the camera.
The AXIS Camera Companion solution consists of three parts: standard Axis network cameras or video encoders with edge storage support for recording onto SD-cards; a free software client and third-party mobile apps used for viewing live and recorded video; and standard third-party network equipment such as routers, switches, SD cards and NAS devices. Existing analog cameras can also be integrated via video encoders.
On the surveillance side at our demo, Camera Companion is running the great little Axis M5014 PTZ camera. It’s 5-inches wide and about 2 inches tall and has 360-degree panning and a tilt function, as well as a digital zoom adjustable by accessing the camera directly. This unit is designed for residential and small retail sites and would likely spend most the time looking at a target area like a POS or an entry, with an occasionally pan and tilt if required. It’s ideal as the eyes of Camera Companion.
The M5014 cameras are IP51-rated so they can handle sprinklers and dust and they have a built-in microphone, too. There’s also a MicroSD slot in the rear of the camera giving up to 64GB if you really needed it. Camera Companion comes with 32GB, which is plenty. And PoE IEEE 802.3af means network and cloud support is very easy, too.
The imaging fundamentals of the M5014 are thoroughly proven. You’re getting 720p HD with a 16:10 aspect ratio at up to 30 images per second and the camera is dishing up dual streams – H.264 for network streaming and MJPEG for higher quality local viewing or higher res recording. Depending on the application, you can select compression on the fly from the live viewing screen.
Being plug-and-play there’s no need to mess around configuring IP addresses to make the camera work and this is part of the reason Camera Companion is so easy to manage. You just connect the unit to a network switch and the supplied Axis software handles the rest. The M5014 comes with auto settings in Camera Companion and works great out of box but you can customise performance if you like with direct connection to the camera.
Installing the system
With the official presentation out of the way, the scribes head off to install the system themselves. Despite reservations, my setup experience is uneventful – partly because the fiddliest part of the job, getting the gear out of the boxes and connected to the commissioning laptop, has already been sorted by the Axis boys.
Plonking down at my designated laptop, I plug the USB stick containing the Axis software into a USB port and follow the wizard prompts. It’s all effortless and I have no trouble pressing continue, continue, continue and letting my eyes glaze over while software and processor do their mambo. Behind the scenes, the software pings the network looking for Axis equipment, finds my camera automatically, a feed is initiated and an image appears. It’s really that easy.
And I’ve got to say, it’s a bloody good image from the M5104. Even though I’ve seen it before, it strikes me again that this universal Axis 720p chipset really is a nice piece of work. In the meeting room, which is not an ideal seeing environment by any means, I get great clarity, good colour rendition, identifiable views at the far end of the room and a disconcertingly honest close up of my own face I’d have very much preferred not to see.
With a bit of advice from a lurking Axis sales tech I find myself able to handle the cursor-pull Pan and Tilt function, though it’s a bit clunky. You’d not want to be chasing an event in real time with this tool but it’s fine for repositioning the camera and function no doubt improves with familiarity. The zoom is accessed by logging into the camera directly and you then set the focal length and it stays fixed unless you re-set it again at a later date.
The software management window is most noteworthy for what it hasn’t got. This simplicity is enhanced by the fact it’s only a single view during our demo. If you have multiple cameras there are 16 camera views in the viewing screen and you can select the one you want in full or split screens.
There’s also the ability to specify internet access and basic customisation – the camera default is 1280 x 720 pixels at 15 frames per second with Camera Companion. This can be adjusted by the user and users can also specify the location of recordings – NAS or microSD.
You view the camera and operate Pan and Tilt in the main screen and there’s an Investigation Mode for handling event recording which is very easy to use. There’s a prominent and typically intuitive calendar timeline. Images are easy to extract. You can take snapshots. For me, the core functionality is the ability to see a live view or search for an event on a network, WAN or mobile device. It’s simple and functional.
Using direct camera connection you can also play with the very simple and comprehensive performance settings menu of the M5104, which allows operation of things like backlight compensation and white balance which are very easy to set or reset. We don’t do this in our demo but I’ve seen it done before and it’s very simple to operate.
As a user, you’d set each camera for event recording and throttle the frame rate – to say 12ips. At 720p in real time you get up to 5 days depending on movement levels in the scene. D1 at 12ips with full HD recording in real time on event for say, 10 seconds before and 60 seconds afterwards, would be a sensible option.
So, Axis Camera Companion is a clever recipe that cooks up existing components into a tasty new dish. It’s a solution that does not require a large and complex central recording device – a DVR or NVR with associated server support – or even a computer once it’s set up.
Cameras are powered over the network, eliminating the need for running separate power cables. All images are recorded onto a standard SD memory card in each camera, and even if a network point fails, the cameras keep recording locally if there’s network power. This reduces cost, simplifies installation and makes the system more robust.
Wong did make one interesting point and that was that while Camera Companion is currently available from integrators, a broader sales basis is being considered for the future.
“Camera Companion is available from our integrators – they certainly have a role to play at present but the future plan for this simple solution is that it be available from retailers,” Wong says.
“We designed the system to be so seamless and simple that anyone could set it up, access the images and search for recordings. We are not trying to replace VMS market, but we are certainly trying to replace and expand the DVR market.”
In my opinion, that goal has been achieved. I think Camera Companion is the commercial recognition by an innovative manufacturer of the way a large part of the video surveillance market may one day appear.
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