Regardless of what their students might claim, educators don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads. But eyes in the palms of their hands? Well, maybe so—thanks to the latest innovation in security software, which gives school administrators and security personnel live access to images captured from any security camera installed at the school either from a personal digital assistant (PDA) or remote computer terminal.

AXIS Camera Explorer (ACE), from Axis Communications Inc., is one of the first technologies of its kind to stream live security video images wirelessly to a handheld device for display. Now, administrators can make lunchtime rounds in the cafeteria while keeping a watchful eye on the school parking lot and other trouble spots where security violations are likely to occur.

Schools can purchase the software for $99. The program, which makes it possible to access any given camera at any time and store the images for safe keeping, can be downloaded onto a Pocket PC device or any standard desktop machine, according to Michael Engstrom, general manager for Axis Communications.

Axis isn’t the only company that has developed this new breed of roving-eye technology. The Brazil-based company I-House, for example, manufacturers a similar solution—called SmartEye—that sells for $150.

Engstrom said Axis, which has been toying with the concept of networked cameras and video servers since 1996, developed ACE to satisfy a demand for basic software applications that could store, stream, and customize images from a number of cameras running off of the same network.

The software “enables you, through a PDA, to be able to view a number of cameras on a video server,” he said. “When [our clients] have more than four cameras, it becomes too much to view everything on the [web] browsers alone.”

The need for better surveillance techniques in schools has increased tenfold since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, Engstrom said. That tragedy, which left 12 students and a teacher dead, provided a sobering reality check for school security staffs nationwide and prompted many educators to think of how schools could better prepare for emergencies.

One way, Engstrom said, is to make images captured by surveillance cameras accessible over a school’s local area network. Then, instead of digging through crowded video rooms and piles of prerecorded VHS tapes, school administrators and security personnel can access video logs from any computer or Pocket PC handheld device already connected to the network.

Storage capabilities also are improved by using a computer-based network to run security surveillance. According to Engstrom, the quality and accessibility of computer images are far superior to those stored on old-fashioned, analog videotapes because they do not degrade over time and generally are easier to file and update.

Several schools already have made the leap to internet protocol (IP)-based video surveillance. Now, this latest development gives administators access to surveillance images in the palms of their hands, allowing them to see several places at once without tying them to a desktop PC.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California, said administrators likely will find great benefit in the system’s mobility. “The ability to take that information to supervisors and administrators on campus regardless of where they are is a great idea, as it will assist our response time and in many cases could get them there in time to prevent problems rather than just reacting to those problems,” he said.

While Engstrom touted the new wireless application as a breakthrough in security technology, he also admitted that the system has its limitations.

The Pocket PCs can only receive video images if the devices are used within range of one of the school’s wireless access points. If security personnel or administrators move outside of that range—typically, about 300 feet—they will be unable to view the images from their PDA. For instance, police personnel accessing a school’s surveillance logs from outside the school building would have to do so using a hard-wired machine.

Cost is another issue. Though the software is generally inexpensive, the cost of the cameras used to record these images can run high. Engstrom said Axis sells an entry-level camera for $299—but higher-end machines, which work off of motion detectors and record at 15 to 30 frames per second, can cost between $700 and $1,200.

Also, some educators question how much security is too much where video surveillance is concerned.

“This may be a good idea for a high-security facility, but it crosses the line [for] schools,” said Ken Eastwood, assistant superintendent for instruction and technology at the Oswego City School District in New York. Eastwood called the system “a ridiculous attribute for a school” and said it ratchets up security “to the point that no one can be trusted and everyone is peeking.”

But Liebman said he likes the idea of running surveillance cameras where possible.

“We already have, or are working on installing, surveillance cameras in our high schools and middle schools,” he said. “The installations we have are proving to be an effective deterrent to fights and vandalism. The systems currently allow us to watch both critical outside and inside locations from computers anywhere in the district and will be available to our sheriff’s department.”

Whether schools operate off of a closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance system or a more sophisticated video server, Engstrom said the technology is customizable to work with whatever is available. “We make use of whatever infrastructure you have,” he said.

Each camera uses an Ethernet hook-up to connect to the network. School officials then must choose whether they want to make the cameras accessible via wireless PDAs, desktop computers, or both. Wireless connections require wireless access points installed throughout the school and a special card installed in the PDA, giving it the power to stream video.

Currently, educators can try out the Axis software for free by downloading a 14-day trial version from the company’s web site.

Links:

Axis Communications Inc.
http://www.axis.com

I-House
http://www.i-house.com.br