IN many ways, the upgraded video surveillance solution at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel is a perfect example of the flexibility and power of IP solutions arguably best expressed not as an end-to-end digital system but as a hybrid. It might sound like sacrilege to talk up the capability of hybrid IP solutions but the fact is that when it comes to balancing cost and functionality, hybrids currently make a lot of sense.
Capable hybrids like this one leverage existing cabling and cameras and save the serious money for building back ends actually capable of supporting HD and megapixel cameras without incorporating bizarre internal contradictions like heavily reduced storage resolutions and throttled frame rates.
The perfect hybrid is a system open to any future requirement as well as being open to all former investment and these imperatives defined the Sheraton’s new video surveillance solution. But while they coloured the installation, the technological agnosticism of the Digifort VMS meant they had no impact on its IP-based operational functionality.
According to Andrew Smith, chief engineer at Sheraton on the Park, the biggest challenge for the hotel is recording coverage time. Because the system is used retrospectively in the event of incidents, healthy recording times and high resolutions from front-of-house cameras are vital.
“We have the requirement of recording at least 21 days on all cameras,” he explains. “We formerly had an old analogue recording system and one of the biggest issues was that every 12 months the recorders were given away and that was a significant expense – it cost up to $7500 to replace each of these recorders.
“As well as being expensive, the analogue recorders were continuously unreliable but, thanks to new digital technology that has been brought on through Spectrum, we’ve now got a solution that is user friendly, that gives us far better detail compared with the analogue system, and that can handle our 21-day recording requirements.
“Because the system is investigative, it’s also vital that the system delivers good clear images and has the ability to find those images quickly,” he says.
“There are incidents that hotels have all the time – things like guests leaving bags in a cab and our staff having to find those taxi plates to get onto the taxi company to find out where their luggage is.
“With the old analogue cameras you’d spend hours trying to catch the images and work out the details but with the DigiFort system you just pull cameras from the camera tree to the screen using a mouse and then right click to find all the recording time options. The image quality is excellent, too.
“The coverage includes the arrival side of the driveway and the exit side of the driveway. This allows us look at vehicles for damage if a guest thinks a valet has damaged a car. It’s useful information and we’ve been able to resolve a number of issues thanks to the high resolution images we now get.”
When it comes to slips and trips Smith says the camera views cover vital areas at the front of the hotel where they support proactive physical measures like handrails and anti-slip pads which are designed to increase the safety of guests.
“The other side of surveillance in the hotel is identifying persons of interest,” Smith says. “A lot of people walk into the hotel and we use the imagery we get from the surveillance system and provide it to staff so they can see what such people are up to – we share that information around other hotels as well.
“Using that footage we have been able to catch criminals not only in this hotel but in other hotels. Obviously, the better the quality of information you get, the more useful that information is. The new system also give us the potential for significant enhancements including number plate recognition, face recognition and other things we can build on as we go forward. While our current system does not yet have these capabilities, we now have the ability to move into the next generation.”
The Digifort solution
The beating heart of Sheraton on the Park’s surveillance solution is the DigiFort IP Surveillance System Version 6.6 and it’s worth taking a quick look at the nature of this system before we move onto the installation. Distributed locally by EOS Australia, DigiFort is a video management system for TCP/IP environments that incorporates core functions like image recording, image monitoring, synoptic maps, PTZ control, video exports, alerts and events and admin.
This system is affordable, robust and intuitive and offers layers of functionality often at a single mouse click. The focus of Digifort is simplicity and speed of operation. That makes it ideal for Sheraton on the Park, which has no dedicated operators – instead authorised administration staff have passwords that allow them to access parts of the system when required.
DigiFort’s client/server architecture allows local and remote surveillance, functionality that is regularly used by Sheraton management when they are away from the hotel. Sheraton on the Park also deploys the system’s capacity for redundant recording, failover recording and automatic disk administration, increasing reliability.
Other useful pieces of functionality include DigiFort Evidence, an optional module allowing the classification and documentation of events that occurred in the surveillance system, including the archiving and organization of video footage and any files related to the occurrence for later look-up, and the generation of administrative and statistical reports.
Integrated are UDP Technologies video analytics, including Zone Enter/Exit, Zone Appear/Disappear, Dwelling, Tamper, Speeding, Stop, Tail gating, Directional and Object Counting. Digifort parses the metadata from these devices then can set and trigger events as well as provide reporting functionality. The license plate recognition uses the Carmen library as an engine. You can setup traps for detected numbers and trigger events.
Video analytics and LPR are not yet deployed at Sheraton on the Park but according to Smith, they are planned for the future.
Sheraton on the Park is around 20 years old and is fitted with busy internal risers and all the legacy cabling and componentry you’d expect in a 24-story building of this size. A key element of the installation was finding room for cabling in busy trays and risers and more importantly, labelling it clearly.
But undertaking an installation in a working hotel has other challenges, as Smith quickly points out. Firstly, it’s a large site, 24 floors with 42 rooms per floor. And it’s busy. There might be 1100 or more guests on a busy day.
“And we are a 24-hour, 7-day operation so we had to pick our days and a lot of installation work was done after hours so it would not impact on areas like the hotel foyer,” he explains. “During the day was a good time for corridor access on guest floors because those are the times guests are out of their rooms.
“The total upgrade took about 4 weeks and that was driven by the way the hotel operates – the installers had to work in with us. So we did bits during the day in certain areas of the hotel and other things were done elsewhere. I think some of the work in the driveway was done at 4am in the morning so as to minimise risk from traffic. Spectrum gave us good advance notice and we timed it between us.”
Spectrum’s Eddie Dagher agrees that time was the key challenge for the installers, as was the need to keep installation teams small.
“The time was the real challenge for us – working at night. We had 2 separate teams – a day team and a night team,” he says. “The teams were kept to 4 people because I did not want the hotel to be crowded with technicians. There were no complaints and no problems and the installation went smoothly at all times.”
“And we are a 24-hour, 7-day operation so we had to pick our days and a lot of installation work was done after hours so it would not impact on areas like the hotel foyer”
The nature of the physical installation is shaped by the switch closets, with 2 located on every floor, including the front of house areas. These link with the surveillance system’s rack in the network room over Cat-6 cable. Analogue cameras get to the local switches via encoders, while the megapixel and HD cameras in the front of house areas are PoE and travel onto the network via blue cable. None of the links between switches is greater than 100 metres.
“Obviously to replace every camera in the hotel with IP would have been a huge expense so in phase one of our upgrade we identified the areas information is picked out 90 per cent of the time and we installed megapixel and 720p HD cameras in those locations,” Smith explains.
“We retained our analogue cameras back of house where the information is not as vital – we know all the staff and can recognise them easily with the existing analogue cameras. We also put new IP cameras onto every floor of the hotel – even though we have key card security for doors and lifts, people can follow a guest onto the floor.”
So, were there challenges in relation to low light, strong backlight or blooming and smearing from downlights, sunlight or vehicle headlights during the install? I ask.
“No, none at all,” says Dagher. “We didn’t come across any of that. We had no issue with low light or backlight inside or outside. The lighting here is very good. All the new IP cameras we installed were day/night cameras so they will switch over if light levels fall but there’s plenty of light for colour operation at all times.”
It’s a good sized installation this, I think as I follow Smith and Dagher through the hotel to the network room. There are 60 analogue cameras, most Samsung and Bosch, and 65 Samsung IP cameras including 3MP Samsung 7080 IP65 vandal domes and 720p HD internal dome cameras, all of them being fixed units with digital zooms. The 3MP cameras view the main driveway where there’s the most foot and vehicle traffic, while the cameras in the rest of the hotel are all 1.3 megapixel – that’s 720p HD.
The network side
Not surprisingly, the network elements of this system required the most care and attention and at various times throughout the installation there was local and remote support from EOS, DigiFort, server supplier DigiCor and the hotel’s IT staff.
“This was not our first Digifort install so there were no dramas on the network side,” Dagher says. “EOS came and gave us some support when we were setting up the servers because it’s a bigger server solution than we have done before. We wanted them to be there so there would be no complications – they are very good and were fantastic to work with. We also got good support from Sheraton on the Park’s IT staff.”
According to Smith, the network at Sheraton on the park is locked down and strongly supported with backup power.
“It’s a subnet with restricted access into certain areas. There’s a UPS supporting the head end and generators to back that up.
“Yes, it’s very restricted – the way the hotel’s IT department has designed the IP surveillance system is that it is on a dedicated network. It’s very secure and access is strictly controlled,” he explains. “At the same time it’s also designed to allow for the next step so it is not limited in architecture. If the hotel wants to add more cameras or servers, then they can. The expansion plans are already in place.
“For example, I can accommodate another 20 megapixel cameras on the servers with no effort right now. And if the hotel decides to go with face recognition or number plate recognition, we have the facilities to do it easily.”
Dagher says one of the good things about DigiFort include being able to access the designers behind it.
“If the hotel needs to add a camera the system does not integrate with, any camera, DigiFort will do it for us. The system will accommodate any high quality camera already but if we want to use a lower cost brand in the future they’ll integrate it for us.”
As part of our tour of the hotel we check out the server room. Standing in front of the server rack there’s not a lot to see. It’s a very compact installation. There are 3 RAID-5 DigiCor servers, each with 24 bays, with all servers and bays designed to swap over in the event of failure.
Mounted at the top of the rack is the system’s main switch. It’s all very straightforward for a medium sized system with 125 cameras. I take a look at the rear of the racks. Having the cameras porting to switches outside the network room does make things tidy when it comes to cabling – all I can see is power and a handful of network cables.
The real strength of the system is those big DigiCor servers, which were purpose-built for this application and are designed to handle heavy loads while offering redundant recording. And they need to be powerful, given the high frame rates, quality resolutions and 21-day recording retention required.
At the Sheraton on the Park the system records all the driveway, foyer and front of house in full resolution of 3MP or 720p HD at 12-15 frames, while the back of house is D1 with all analogue cameras recorded at 10 frames per second. The 720p HD cameras on different floors of the hotel all record on motion so as to reduce storage demand in low traffic areas.
The control room
The core characteristic of the Sheraton of the Park surveillance system from an operational standpoint is that it’s an investigative tool and that means the surveillance workstation is unmanned unless required.
“We do not have a dedicated security team here handling surveillance,” Smith explains. “Our security is only overnight and safety is handled by our staff during the day with relevant staff members having different levels of access to the system via passwords.
“Some can view certain cameras, senior managers can record events. That’s a good thing about the system – we can assign different access levels – not everyone can just play with the system. Additionally, authorised staff can view footage from home as well.”
The surveillance system’s workstation is built around several larger LCD monitors and a number of smaller monitors mounted on a wall in a rectangular space. All these monitors are legacy but are still doing a decent job of it. The plan is for 3 large screens to replace this group of monitors as part of the next upgrade.
To get a feel for system performance in real time, we use the system to look at the areas where there are lot of IP cameras, including the driveway and the foyer area. Coverage with just a handful of cameras outside is exceptional and resolution is great. When Dagher pulls up the full resolution images onto the main screen the depth of field offered by these cameras really shines.
This is a wide site, as hotel entries often are, and I can see how easy it would be to use the system for number plate recognition of all traffic coming through the driveway using these big 3MP Samsung 7080s team up with DigiFort’s digital zoom. The big 3MP camera is looking all the way down the driveway across the front of the building getting face recognition deep into the scene.
The shot is very wide angle – it’s been stretched to cover the whole space. The scene shows the main steps as well as walkways approaching the entrance. It’s a bright day outside and the area outside the covered driveway is comparatively light but it’s still possible to see vehicles and pedestrians out there in the sun – it’s not easy for a megapixel camera to achieve this performance.
Dagher tells me the lens on the camera we’re viewing is 5-70mm which is an awesome-sized lens and capable of seeing much further than the width of these large premises. It does good work and would handily support LPR, in my opinion.
“Such a capable lens means I can go to the other side of the driveway if I want to but we concentrate on the entryway and number plates of vehicles entering,” Dagher says.
There are also 720p HD cameras situated to show guests and visitors coming in through the main entrance and other cameras covers cash transactions, the entry to the restaurant, the lift lobby.
As we look at footage of cameras in the foyer Dagher double clicks on a scene to get the high resolution footage and highlights an area in the scene to activate the digital zoom. The images are strong – much superior to any analogue camera.
Showing me these, Dagher drives the system using a mouse but there’s a Digifort keyboard on the desk which has all the functionality of the on-screen controls.
“At the moment we have 4 of the 3MP video streams displayed on the main screen – in the future we will have 12 screens,” Dagher explains. “Cameras can be assigned to any monitor you like – you just pull them over from the camera tree.”
At first glance the images do not appear as sharp as I expected with megapixel cameras but Dagher quickly shows me why. The images are being displayed at 640 x 480 for the purposes of general monitoring while recording is done in full resolution.
“A great feature of the system is that it displays in lower resolution to reduce server load and if you double click on an image it will increase the resolution from a display of 640 x 480 pixels to 2048 x 1536 pixels,” he explains. “All the cameras are set up like that, we wanted it that way.”
“EOS came and gave us some support when we were setting up the servers because it’s a bigger server solution than we have done before. We wanted them to be there so there would be no complications – they are very good and were fantastic to work with”
As I look at the Digifort VMS taking in the details of its interface I notice there’s an indicator showing the work rate of the server’s processor. It’s idling along at only about 10 per cent of power.
The DigiFort offers a nice simple layout, I think. The camera tree is on the bottom right rather than the left and in this system camera numbers make identifying camera views easier. There’s a control panel above the tree allowing PTZ and jog shuttle control. When you jump into full screen when viewing recordings of existing footage, a timeline appears at the bottom of the full screen viewer while large icons allowing functions like export, print, motion search and image filters appear on the right.
A key strength of the system Dagher shows me is the digital PTZ functionality which was designed by DigiFort specifically for megapixel cameras. The function allows zoom areas to be drawn onto a preview picture. DigiFort can also put the same camera onto a monitor screen multiple times even if the picture is only being recorded once and then use that digital zoom to look into multiple areas of the split image. It’s a brilliant feature for the driveway of a big hotel like this one with its multiple 3MP cameras and Smith says staff use the Digital PTZ all the time.
Also neat is the fact the system can remember the position of a digital zoom so later when you come back to a saved view you can see the multiple points of interest in the wider scene you nominated and saved earlier. In one of a number of intuitive features the camera tree also indicates motion – camera icon that is experiencing motion will turn yellow and a red record indicator beside the camera icon if the camera is recording. It’s a simple but neat piece of functionality.
Another good feature DigiFort offers is the ability to right click once on a camera view and instantly jump to playback from 30 seconds ago, 1 minute ago, 5 minutes ago, etc. In fact, there’s a whole list of pre-defined times you can jump back to at a single click or you can specify a specific time.
Next we look at the camera viewing the boom gate into the carpark – it’s a great image with excellent depth of field and good colour rendition. A vehicle drives in.
“You can see the number plate is very clear and the imagery is excellent,” Smith explains. “If someone forces the boom gate we can see exactly who they are.”
Next we look around the loading dock which is lit by the usual fluoro lighting. The 720p HD camera we view gives great depth of field inside, there are no dark spots at all, no blooming from lights. As I watch Dagher working I observe it’s a simple system to use.
“Yes, it’s very easy to use,” Dagher agrees. “It only takes you 5 minutes to train someone to operate it.”
Talking with Smith and Dagher on the hotel steps at the end of my tour my overriding impression was that this upgrade had gone extremely well, that all expectations have been met, and the system functions as expected.
These impressions are reinforced as I chat with Dagher as we drive down Elizabeth St after leaving the hotel.
“We worked closely with Andrew during the upgrade and got on well,” he says. “The relationship we have with the hotel and with Andrew is fantastic, you’d never get better. The IT team is very friendly too. Whatever we do with regard to IT we talk to them and tell them what we have planned. They loved working with the Digifort system.
“They are good people, easy going and we treat them as friends as well as clients,” Dagher explains. “We help them like friends, too. If there are any problems we react immediately, we are here within an hour or two not days – that’s our policy. We are in the city and we respond immediately to their calls.”
Meanwhile, George Maamary, SSSI’s managing director says that the design and integration of the solution was made easy by the fact he and Dagher were in constant communication with Smith before, during and after the installation.
“It was a pleasurable experience dealing with people who understand that a little patience is required to achieve much,” says Maamary.
Most importantly, Smith is also happy with the system at the Sheraton on the Park.
“It’s easy to use – there’s no need to train people in the use of the system – it took a few minutes to learn,” he says. “Most people are familiar with this sort of interface.
“Our previous system was a bit complicated. It was 5-year-old technology and we were switching between recorders. It was unreliable, and unfriendly. This upgrade was about the new system being easy to use, the ability to continue to use our existing cameras and cabling and the ability to upgrade in the future as needed.
“Cost was another thing. We went out to some competitors for pricing and we found suppliers that wanted us to start all over again with their systems. The cost made that a deal breaker. The numbers did not stack up to replace an entire system when parts of it were still useable. In the end the DigiFort system simply met all the requirements the hotel had for an upgraded hybrid surveillance system.”
“This upgrade was about the new system being easy to use, the ability to continue to use our existing cameras and cabling and the ability to upgrade in the future as needed”