Webcams Grow Up

March 20, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Only after spending $6,000 on a late-model surveillance system did local telecommunications distributor Basic Communications realize "there must be a better way."

"We kept running into problems of how to watch our people for training purposes, and 'What happens if we get robbed?'" said Basic Communications President Greg Kirby. "So we went out and ordered camera systems for three of the stores. We experienced the cost, how expensive it was, and how difficult it was to put into operation."

It didn't take long for Kirby to realize that his closed-circuit system, though brand new, wasn't nearly as advanced as the products he sold. It was expensive, cumbersome to install, and integrated poorly with other technology.

There was no audio. If his computer went down, he had to reload the software from scratch. When a store was robbed, he spent five hours scrolling through video to find the event.

Kirby wanted a surveillance program equivalent to the brands he distributed: Nextel, Alltel, Dish Network and DIRECTV.

"I'm not very technical," he said. "I expected there to be a way where I could just jump on a Web site and view all my stores."

When he brought his frustrations to Fletcher Klap, principal of computer vendor MicroNET Corp., he quickly learned there was no such service.

"He kept saying that there was really nothing out there," Kirby said. "So we thought, 'Hey, great idea. Let's create a company.'"

Over the course of the next year, the two companies developed WebCamOne Surveillance LLC, a joint venture that integrated technology from 10 manufacturers to create a service that is affordable for small businesses — with more features than most enterprise systems. The company is currently rolling out the offering within Basic Communications' dealer network, with immediate plans for distribution throughout the Midwest.

The system forgoes closed-circuit television and coaxial cable for IP video and networking. Whereas other systems feed into a DVD or VHS recorder, WebCamOne transmits video directly onto the Internet — an advanced version of the product made famous for its spying and "nanny-cam" usage.

The video is hosted on the WebCamOne server, where it can be viewed from any Web browser. The picture provides fluid motion at 12 frames per second, suitable for all surveillance applications shy of banks and casinos. Unlike most systems, an audio feed is included.

Conscious of the often grainy stills produced from surveillance video for law enforcement, video is recorded at a higher resolution of two frames per second. The recording function is motion activated, so hours of inactivity are not recorded. If viewed at its fastest speed, a full day takes roughly an hour.

Also, there is no video onsite for a robber to potentially remove or destroy. And in a power or network outage, the system has enough backup power and data storage to last at least an hour.

"This has surveillance benefits, but it also helps you manage your business," Klap said. "Are my employees giving good customer service? Am I overstaffed or understaffed?"

Kirby demonstrated by bringing up his store's Traverse City location on screen.

"We don't want them sitting down behind the counter helping customers; we want them out on the floor," he said, noting an employee helping a customer from behind the counter. "There he is. Now I can go back to the manager and say, 'John, we need to start working on getting you guys out from behind the desk.'"

He switches to the recorded video and scrolls back to that morning. The clock reads 8:45 a.m.; an employee walks through the door.

"She's early," Kirby said, noticeably pleased. "They have to be there by 9."

Klap explained that most surveillance companies won't even approach installations of this sort. They are likely, instead, to focus on school systems, factories or large commercial spaces. Small to medium-sized companies are often do-it-yourself projects. Either way, the available options are expensive.

One potential customer recently spent $9,000 to install a four-camera system; WebCamOne quoted $2,300, with a nominal monthly fee. A broadband Internet connection is required — an upload application, it will not affect download speed. Installation takes only a few hours.

"The idea was to create a system that filled a niche that wasn't being filled properly," Klap said.

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