Why do we have so many CCTV video file formats?

 Multiple CCTV formats
 
 

CCTV video file formats: Coping with the Overwhelming variety

Chances are, if you’ve got a report to write, you’re going to use a piece of software that’s also the go-to tool for millions of other people across the globe. The same applies if you have a spreadsheet to create, or a presentation to draw up: there are just a small handful of reliable, trusted formats that everyone uses.

In the world of CCTV, however, things aren’t so simple. Because the industry has developed slowly and in a piecemeal fashion, we now have several thousand different variations of video format. Relatively little national or international coordination in terms of strategic direction and regulation has done nothing to curb this proliferation. Added to this issue is the fact that traditionally CCTV has been the preserve of relatively small and medium sized companies, with the big multinational companies coming into the market only recently, having largely missed the window to use their weight to force a decrease in number of formats.

These factors combined mean that there is no single format currently leading the market, and the chances of one emerging to dominate is vanishingly slim. Thanks to the relative ease of creating new digital products, manufacturers tend to write their own ‘proprietary’ CCTV readers (pertaining only to their own DVR format). They write these exclusive methodologies to maintain commercial control over their format and prevent third-party copying of a particular file.  Some proprietary systems offer more than one export option, for example the native format plus a standard ‘container’ format (such as AVI). Others, however, are reluctant to extend that flexibility. Their argument is commonly that they need to maintain control over the file by making it conversion-proof: indeed, many companies use this "tamperproof" element of their product as a positive selling feature.

 Too many CCTV file formats

As a professional with a need to access, examine and utilise the video files, that’s all fine: but only if you only need to view footage from a few cameras. In real life, your sources are often going to reach into double figures or beyond. What manufacturers either don’t realise or won’t prioritise is that every time a new proprietary format is introduced, the job facing law enforcement agencies who need to view a lot of footage becomes that little bit harder.

But it’s not just the viewing of the video footage itself that causes such a headache among consumers of CCTV. The associated metadata - time stamps, channel numbers, image information etc. –  forms a crucial part of the evidence that CCTV can provide. And although this information is included with most, if not all proprietary readers, it is not presented in a common way.

Where are manufacturers going with CCTV video file formats?

Currently, it appears the situation is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better.  CCTV manufacturers continue to push the complexities of algorithms to encode video and build new functionality, and with each new variation, the list of formats grows.

To illustrate this, Sira invited CCTV manufacturers, distributors and installers to pool data about which transcoded export format standards their DVRs currently use. Having collated the information we received back, we can reveal the following results:

 H.264 (MPEG-4 part 10)

 72.2%

 MPEG-4 part 2

 50.0%

 JPEG

 27.8%

 MPEG-2

 27.8%

 JPEG 2000

 13.9%

 Formats not listed

 19.4%

It should be noted that some manufacturers support more than one format, which is why the percentages add up to >100.

We also carried out an analysis of all the examples which have been sent to the Sira laboratory by users within the criminal justice system, and the results were very similar to the information supplied directly by the manufacturers.  The results presented indicate that there is a move towards using H.264-based image compression.  Clearly this is only a snapshot and a more accurate finding may be derived from larger samples and more up-to-date database had been interrogated.

Why not adopt a single CCTV video file format based around H.264?

The UK National CCTV Strategy suggests that one way to establish digital CCTV standards would be for stakeholders to agree on a standard digital video format. But although developing a single format may be an answer, it is highly unlikely in an enormously crowded market of thousands of format variations developed by hundreds of manufacturers.  It may also be the case that if all the manufacturers were forced to use a single format, innovation and further development could be stifled. Even if a small range of formats were adopted as industry standards, implementation is often flexible so there would still be variation.

So what’s the solution?

We believe the solution lies not in forcing a single common DVR format but in focusing instead on metadata. As writers of a universal CCTV decoder, we have undertaken analysis of many of the myriad formats in existence currently. We have found that even among those manufacturers who adopt a common protocol (for example H.264), there is no great degree of commonality with regard to metadata formats.

It is our view that the establishment of a common metadata format would be the most efficient and implementable route to CCTV data-standardisation, if a reduction in format variations is ever to occur. An agreement between CCTV manufacturers on the presentation of the metadata that law enforcement agencies rely upon would lead to great strides in commonality. Metadata standardisation would not only drive down unnecessary and time-consuming complications for the end-user when examining and exporting multiple formats, but, we believe, also leave developers the freedom to innovate further, and concentrate on greater functionality for the future of CCTV.