Resolution Is In the Eye of the Beholder
Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM
By Corrina Stellitano
Say vacation, and many people imagine sunny beaches or crisp white snow, but the leaders of Oklahoma's Cherokee Nation Enterprises are working to make their Catoosa Casino the first true destination gaming resort in the state.
To be completed in September 2004, the $80 million expansion to the Cherokee Nation's Catoosa Casino will enlarge the gaming area by 50,000 square feet and add a 150-room luxury hotel. Adjacent to the newly renovated championship golf course, the Catoosa Casino and Resort will eventually employ more than 600 people.
With such growth on the horizon, the selection of a new digital video surveillance system for the four existing Cherokee Nation casinos became an even weightier decision. Aware of the importance of their choice, surveillance director Brian Moody and John Gillette, general manager for safety, security and surveillance, studied the situation for two years.
Moody contacted other gaming industry leaders who had been through the digital conversion process, listening and learning from their past experiences. The pair researched emerging technologies and consulted industry trade magazines. Eventually, they developed a list of priorities, including image quality, ease of use, initial cost and operating cost, overall quality, system scalability and flexibility, and additional security features. After testing eight different systems, they chose GE Interlogix's ClearCast.
Gillette, who once served a 25-year stint as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Department of Treasury, says he chose the system for its price and video storage capabilities, and because of its manufacturer.
"I was looking for a long-term strategic business partner like General Electric," he says. "There are a lot of facets to the gaming industry that require specific attention and focus."
The clear choice
Introduced in September 2003, ClearCast is a digital recording and storage system based on the eTreppid technology. Casino directors, responsible for hundreds and sometimes thousands of cameras, have often been reluctant to give up their analog devices in exchange for promised digital benefits. Protests have ranged from cost and usability to the bandwidth consumption of high-quality images.
ClearCast is suitable for these types of environments, says Doug Ankele, GE product manager. "In a number of the environments that we work with, there was a strong desire to move to digital recording," he says. "The challenge was meeting their storage expectations. The current technologies forced them to make a choice: to go for cost-effective storage at the expense of usable, appropriate picture quality for their needs."
Moody and Gillette hoped the system would help them meet the recently introduced National Indian Gaming Commission recording standards, requiring rates of 20 frames-per-second, and the Cherokee Nation Tribal retention standards of a minimum of 30 days.
According to product developers, ClearCast provides full-frame recording without the use of simulation or scene-filling methods and uses less storage space than MPEG-2/4. Ankele says users can record at resolutions of 640¡Á480 and 320¡Á240 at up to 30 frames-per-second per camera. Data rates vary between 150 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps per camera depending on the image size and quality settings selected.
But, says Ankele, one should not rely on the numbers to compare a digital surveillance system.
"This is a situation where beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he says. "When someone says I need 640x480, it doesn't quite tell them how the picture is going to look. People are unfortunately relying on these specifications. You could have images at a higher resolution that may not deliver what a lower resolution may appear to deliver ¡ª especially when you throw in compression."
Instead, Ankele says, "Take an image and pull it up full screen; that's one of the acid tests."
Building a ClearCast system
The digital surveillance recording and storage system also offers networkability and a compartmented architecture. A typical system configuration includes one or more 8-camera capture units, several Web-based operator workstations, and a central server, or network control unit. The capture station collects video and audio signals and then compresses and records the data onto RAID 5 internal hard drives.
At Cherokee Nation Enterprises' four current gaming facilities, 700 cameras are connected to 88 capture units. At Catoosa, the largest Cherokee facility located just outside of Tulsa, 300 cameras record the daily action. When the new seven-story hotel and three-story casino and conference center are opened in September 2004, ClearCast will help Cherokee Nation Enterprises store images from more than 1,100 cameras at its four locations.
Scaling up is similar because of a compartmentalized approach. "The architecture of the system allows us to grow comfortably and do it without having system-wide effects. The other aspect is, should I have a problem with a capture station, I'm only affecting a small portion of my system," says Ankele.
The operator workstations at the Cherokee Nation casinos operate on ClearCast Client workstations. Main functions are Web-based and allow multiple users to simultaneously view the same live or recorded video. The network control unit, a Windows 2000 central server, contains the system database including interactive user permissions and camera configurations. The network control unit also serves up Web site pages for the user workstations.
Rather than dividing cameras into zones according to what device they are hooked to, the system allows cameras to be defined into areas.
"We as manufacturers have become box-based. When we go to view video, we typically need to know, 'which box is my camera connected to?' In the casino environment, ClearCast allows users to define areas, a grouping of cameras. And those cameras which comprise an area can be any camera in the system; I don't care which box it's connected to. We're allowing the operator complete control in defining these areas."
For example, Ankele says, in the past, some casinos may have put all the cameras protecting a gaming pit onto one recording device so they could easily view the video. ClearCast allows those cameras to be defined as one area but the actual cameras can be connected to different capture stations. This allows the system to be tailored to the operator's viewing needs while reducing the casino's risk should an individual recording unit fail.
Minimizing downtime, or avoiding it altogether, is essential in the casino gaming environment. This is a lesson learned in action by Oklahoma City-based Dowley Inc., a systems integrator company.
When Dowley began working with Cherokee Nation Enterprises in 1997, the gaming facilities used a basic analog video surveillance system. In 2003, Dowley won the bid to help the Cherokee Nation casinos integrate a new GE Digiplex HDS (High Density System) matrix switch.
"The footprint on that high density switch is really small, which is key to the amount of space we had to install in," recalls Dowley President Jerick Henley. "It offered features far beyond their existing Digiplex III Kalatel system. It also offered seamless integration, because we had an installed base of GE Kalatel products ¡ª i.e. the GE cyber domes, controllers, multiplexers, and other fixed cameras."
When Moody issued a bid request for digital recording systems from companies across the country, Dowley suggested GE's ClearCast.
"It is a brand new product and we were concerned whether all the additional features offered would meet Cherokee's needs," Henley says. "But Cherokee Nation Enterprises came to the conclusion, as did we, that the number one most important feature was compression and resolution. Everything else can be added or upgraded, but if we start with the best compression and resolution, we can build from there every time."
The installation of the system was challenging, in part, Henley says, because of the casinos' aggressive installation timeframe. With construction ongoing, technology installation had to share the stage with the work of other contractors.
Plus, the system had to be brought online with no recording downtime.
"So we had the challenge of providing them with a brand new system, maintaining their existing system and never having any downtime in three locations," Henley recalls. "We actually set up a different room for the digital recording system, wired it as a functioning system, and then moved cameras over one-by-one. And they experienced zero downtime."
Henley and his installation team credit Moody and Gillette with making the entire process smoother, as well. "They were vital in the success of this project. Had they not been as informed, educated and diligent as they were, it would have been very hard for us to move forward. A challenge is always moving ahead into a new territory."
On the move again
After using the ClearCast system, Gillette is satisfied and ready to conquer new territory once again.
"The digital recording system provides numerous operating efficiencies that provide quality surveillance coverage without having to increase surveillance agent employee costs. And the surveillance agents easily learned how to operate the system," he says.
Future Cherokee Nation plans include the full integration of surveillance, access control, key control and emergency systems. A CASI access control system with proximity card readers will soon be installed."In addition," says Gillette, "we are seriously exploring the possibility of streaming video surveillance from remote gaming sites to a regional surveillance center. We could equip satellite sites and stream the video to regional sites staffed with surveillance agents. This would allow us to greatly reduce plant and investment costs associated with personnel."
A recent event only strengthened Gillette's appreciation. "Recently we had a serious crime committed against a customer and the police had very little descriptive information about suspects. Under the former system we would have spent days pouring through video tapes.
"In a matter of hours, we were able to do the research and provide the officers with video coverage and a disk containing a photo lineup of the people we believed to be suspects."