Cameras aimed at customers moving through store aisles can provide a lot more than security. Retailers have become technically savvy and hungry for data about their customers’ behavior and habits, which is information that, until now, has given online retailers an edge. Technology companies are offering hardware and packaged solutions that put both security and analytics on the same camera. Most rely on installers to sell those solutions and provide maintenance, opening opportunity for contractors.


Embedded vision, the intelligence that software provides through cameras, allows a system “to understand things about the world through visual input,” said Jeff Bier, founder of Embedded Vision Alliance.


This computer vision technology employs digital processing and intelligent algorithms to interpret meaning from images or video. Consumers most commonly recognize embedded vision as the Microsoft Kinect system for Xbox gaming consoles that detects the player and accepts movements and gestures as input commands.


Historically, the technology was too expensive for most end-users; not long ago, embedded vision systems deployments were limited to military programs and factory automation. Today, improvements in semiconductor development have made the technology much more affordable. Now, cameras see and understand things about the environment in stores, parking lots and school campuses.


In some cases, the technology is being used as augmented reality solutions in which virtual information is displayed over a real image. Stores offer customers the chance to learn about a product before buying it. For example, a smart mirror shows you what a piece of clothing would look like on you; the camera software detects your orientation and places an image of the item directly on your image as if you are, for example, wearing a jacket being sold at the store.


Digital signs also include the technology—consisting of a flat screen with a camera looking back at viewers. In this case, software on a server can collect data about the numbers and kinds of people stopping to view an image, such as an advertisement on the screen, and analytics can determine the demographics of those individuals, allowing marketers to understand how effective an ad campaign is or at least how many people paused to take a look.


“The system is not trying to identify who you are but, rather, your coarse demographics, such as age and gender,” Bier said.


The technology also provides security at locations such as parking lots. Faster and more accurate than motion sensors, embedded vision enables a camera to identify when an individual is approaching an area, to figure out if it is dark enough that the person will need light, and to switch on a luminaire to meet that person’s needs. 


Much of the intelligence is available thanks to improved resolution in cameras and better data compression, said Ed McCabe, national retail sales manager for Panasonic. The retail industry is still moving from old analog cameras to Internet protocol (IP) equipment that allow the stores to save months’ worth of images rather than a week’s worth or less.


“If there was an incident in the past, they could review tapes to see what occurred and who was involved. But retailers are trying to be more proactive now,” McCabe said, adding that stores now try to identify known shoplifters or suspicious people in advance. 


“Now, when you see the camera looking at you, it’s got two reasons to be doing that: deterrence, but also matching your face to databases of known shoppers.” 


McCabe said many stores are using Panasonic solutions to do that and reduce the rate of shoplifting.


Panasonic, like many security equipment providers, has become a turnkey solution provider. The company offers the equipment and the software (through partners) to manage the equipment’s data. Some software enables stores to look at behavior to determine the number of shoppers that come into the store, which is compared to the number who make purchases, and also figure out whether they are placing Internet orders on their phone after looking at a product on the store shelf.


“Retailers are becoming much more savvy; they want to make sure they get people to their stores and then complete a transaction,” McCabe said. “Retailers have huge departments tracking business intelligence, social media, Facebook, looking at every way they can understand a shopper. I think, sooner or later, they’ll be able to understand customers even better.”


The technology is also being used to reduce in-house shrinkage. Business intelligence cameras can allow a store to match what’s happening at the register to sales at the end of the day. In this way, they can identify suspicious behavior of their own staff members who may not be ringing up products appropriately.


Panasonic develops full solutions to bring to market.


“We work with integrators and resellers. We don’t do installations and maintenance ourselves; we rely on our integrators,” McCabe said. “I see some integrators very much involved in a vertical market. Others work an entire geographical area—one day with a hospital, the next day with a public office—and they may not know the trends as well. That’s what we’re here to help with, make sure they’re up to date with technology.


A hosted solution that contractors can provide to retailers is an alternative for customers that don’t want to spend the overhead for a fully integrated surveillance system. In this case, video surveillance as a mode of system delivery (Vsaas)—in which management of camera data is done on a hosted server at a fee for the end-user—is a growing trend.


Such a solution puts the maintenance and collection of data from a surveillance system into the hands of the vendor or installer rather than the end-user. The idea was launched with the advent of cloud computing and experienced some tapering off after that initial hype, but the service is now growing steadily, according to Aaron Dale, market analyst at research firm IHS (owned by IMS Research).


“One area where the growth is strongest is in the retail sector where surveillance for security systems can be combined with a variety of other services,” Dale said, adding that it can include gathering data about customer behavior within the store, intelligence to identify excessive lines at the point of sale or even suspicious behavior by a potential thief.


Fast-food restaurants use the service where an owner has several locations he or she needs to manage remotely. A Vsaas system makes the most sense economically and in terms of efficiency because fewer security staff members are needed.


Contractors should be educating themselves about this development, since they may be in the position to specify, install and maintain these systems, Bier said. The Embedded Vision Alliance website offers tutorial articles and demonstration videos that can get individuals some basic understanding of the options, and that knowledge could help lead to future sales.


For contractors, the surveillance system offers recurring monthly revenue, and, by teaming up with specific vendors, they can offer the solution to customers whose surveillance decisions have not yet been made. The companies can sometimes include the hardware in that monthly charge.


Of course, bandwidth is one of the key barriers for the surveillance market when used wirelessly.


“That still presents an issue,” Dale said. “If you have five or six cameras uploading to a server, there will be a strain on bandwidth.”


However, technology vendors are still working to further address the problem with development of devices that manage the uplink.


“There has been quite a lot of improvement in compression,” Dale said. And with these changes, he said, “In two or three years, this may be far less of an issue.”


Meanwhile, while shopping, remember: They’re watching you!