Imagine 10 million surveillance cameras, digitized and linked.
Sometimes terrible events create business opportunity, and that's what happened for Steve Morton after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York City's World Trade Center. Morton quickly repositioned his high-tech company, Oxford Micro Devices, and entered the suddenly burgeoning field of homeland security. There are important business lessons to be learned from his experience.
A fiercely independent engineer and entrepreneur trained at MIT and hardened by years at ITT, Morton runs a fabless semiconductor company -- a company that designs and sells chips but has other companies actually build them -- in bucolic Monroe, Conn. His family of chips, which come under the heading of video digital signal processors, or video DSPs, were developed over several years, primarily through small Department of Defense contracts. The chips are devoted mostly to processing images and video, but Morton's initial commercial application was something completely different -- fingerprint recognition.
And not just any fingerprint recognition: Steve Morton built fingerprint recognition into the trigger of a gun. If the gun didn't recognize your fingerprint, you couldn't shoot it. That product-development decision, which on its face makes a lot of sense in a violent world where children sometimes play with guns, almost killed the company. It wasn't that the project was too ambitious: Morton built successful prototypes that could have been produced at a reasonable cost. But the gun makers wanted no part of it. "The fingerprint business was frustrating," Morton recalls. "Nobody would partner with us for liability reasons. There was just no support, and of course the National Rifle Association hated it. People would see our demonstrations and predict we'd soon be rich, but it never happened." Sometimes, if you build it, they don't come.
In the two years before 9/11, Morton shifted focus from fingerprint recognition to physical security, creating a separate company, Boundless Security Systems, to build a networked system of intelligent video surveillance cameras. It was a logical use for his chips and, as he says, "in physical security there is no equivalent to the NRA." Interest in the technology exploded after 9/11 and grew greater still following the Washington, D.C.area sniper attacks. "The D.C. attacks were a turning point," recalls Morton. "These weren't religious extremists crashing airliners into buildings, they were two guys with a $500 rifle wreaking havoc on the nation's capital. Everyone felt vulnerable, and if they didn't like the idea of public security cameras before, now they don't worry so much about the privacy issue."
Morton estimates that about 10 million closed-circuit TV cameras are currently used for surveillance and physical security in this country. These cameras are built with 50-year-old technology, and the only way they are able to foil a crime is if someone happens to be watching the feed from a particular camera at the exact moment the crime is taking place. The videotapes from the cameras -- if they exist, since many cameras aren't recorded at all -- are sometimes useful at trial, but are generally useless for stopping a crime as it is happening. The entire system is analog and no automation is possible on any level. It is archaic.
Boundless's cameras (they are called CamPuters) are different. Each has a digital sensor connected to a video DSP. Each camera is connected to a network via Ethernet, and all video -- everything these cameras see -- is stored in a compressed state on a central storage system.
Adding digital technology to the cameras dramatically expands the capability of a surveillance system. Now, instead of being limited to a few hundred feet of video cable, the cameras can be viewed over the Internet from anywhere on earth. That means the rent-a-cop who is watching the screen can be in New York during the day and in India at night. It also means that the compressed video from every camera can be stored practically forever, since storage costs are constantly dropping. And the pictures can be much higher in resolution, making it possible to read license numbers and recognize faces.
Those are examples of using digital technology to do the same job better, but the Boundless system becomes truly powerful when the cameras are intelligent. The cameras can, for example, be told to look for a particular face, a particular behavior, or a sound (gunfire, for example), or even to look for a unique biometric measure like the iris of a criminal's eye. Boundless's system can identify iris patterns through dark glasses or contact lenses and can do so almost instantly for thousands of people passing through airport metal detectors or subway turnstiles. Link all the cameras in a country and even Ted Kaczynski would have difficulty hiding.
What's important here is not just that a camera is smart enough to do these things, but that every camera can, and that, upon finally finding that wanted face in a crowd at JFK, a camera can announce to the network, "Hey, look at me!" With Boundless Security, the rent-a-cop role is played by the camera itself. Response times get faster, there is less error, and fewer donuts are consumed.
There is a dark side to all this, of course. What happens when there is a CamPuter on every street corner and in every elevator? Crime is deterred, but so is almost everything else worth doing in private. Will our irises be screened for Mom and Dad, for our bosses, for spouses, telling them all where we are and what we are doing any hour of the day? I doubt it will go that far, because the cost of such comprehensive scanning would be too high and because I will have already invented a technology to defeat it.
The other potential issue is cost, but that might be less of a problem than you would expect, since in some cases it is possible to use existing cameras and wiring, just adding digital intelligence as needed. The labor saving is considerable and, as with any computer technology, the prices will drop over time.
But even with obvious need, sales come slowly. Few vendors are offering end-to-end digital security solutions, so the market is fragmented. Boundless is meeting with larger and larger customers, according to Morton, but the big customers have longer sales cycles and the little customers are just plain confused. The company is so far finding its greatest success overseas, because, as Morton says, monarchies and dictatorships sometimes have an advantage when it comes to decision making. "It is common in Europe," he says, "for one general to be in charge of security for every airport in the country. You sell only to him. But in the U.S., every airport makes its own buying decisions and there are hundreds. We can only hope that the new Department of Homeland Security will get its act together."
Right now, the U.S. physical security market is fragmented between mom-and-pop local companies and giant players like Bosch, Honeywell, and Tyco. The move to Internet-based technology is inevitable, but with new tech fighting old tech and hybrid tech, it isn't always clear what to do. And with security data about to share the network with corporate operational data, suddenly the security and IT people have to start talking, which they have generally not done before. It will provoke culture clash. If you flood the corporate network with video, does that increase the vulnerability of that network? That is the unanswered question.
The opportunity here for small and medium-size businesses is to become integrators. Someone still has to go out in the field and replace each of those 10 million analog cameras with whatever technology finally triumphs. In terms of technology companies, there will be abundant opportunities for third-party software developers to add capabilities to the system. For example, Morton envisions someone developing a way to triangulate the location of gunshots between several cameras. Like the personal computer business before it, this new architecture can be adapted for many purposes, and each one represents an opportunity for many players.
The world has changed, and our approach as a culture to physical security has changed, too. There is no going back. The best we can hope for is that technology can help us feel a little safer.
Contributing editor Robert X. Cringely is a writer, broadcaster, and entrepreneur specializing in high technology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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