The Parts of an IP Camera

To understand where the IP camera market is headed, I think it’s important to understand how one of these things are put together.

Like most high tech devices, each product is really an amalgamation of parts from different manufacturers. In fact many products are the result of tight, but perhaps unappreciated, collaboration of several (sometimes competing) companies. I’d recommend listening to Freakonomics rundown of the “I, Pencil” essay (starts 7 minutes in).

So, an IP camera is not a pencil, but just like all pencil manufacturers don’t manufacture every single part of the pencil, but instead, they purchase the parts (graphite, brass, paint and so on) and every manufacturer puts the pencil together following roughly the same pattern.

And, so, when it comes to IP cameras, they too are composed of parts that are available to everyone who wants to start making cameras.

You’ll need a couple of things: A lens, a sensor, some circuitry and some code.

You’re not going to start making your own lenses or sensors, are you? Probably not, so you’ll get the lenses from a lens maker (and they may even outsource their manufacturing process even further), and the sensor from either Sony or Canon.

You’re not going to design your own CPU either (unless you’re Axis). Today, you’d be better off grabbing an ARM platform and use that to drive the sensor and interface. The other advantage is that ARM is well supported in the software world, so you’re already halfway there.

Now that you have the basics, you need to write some code to get it all working together. If you went the ARM route, it’s pretty simple to get a linux kernel running. Well.. “simple” is depends on your level of skill, but finding a few geeks who can do this shouldn’t take long. So you grab the Linux kernel, add Apache or perhaps GoAhead, you can add gStreamer too (do check the link, it is a great presentation by Axis) . The next thing you know, you have a jumble of cables and breadboards, burns on your fingers from the soldering iron, you haven’t seen your kids in 4 days and the smell is getting a little hard to stomach.

On top of that, you need to wrap this in an enclosure. There’s regulations to follow, tests that need to be carried out and so on. Then you have the nightmare of maintaining all those pieces of code, and trust me – if you wrote everything yourself, it would take even longer and be much harder to test and maintain.

What if there was a company, that could do all of the above? And just stick my name on the box? After all, my company would pick the same lens, the same sensor, the same board and the same software, so why not do it?

I have no intention of starting production of a Raspberry Pi Zero based IP camera, but I know that I can make one for ~$40 (and that’s buying all the parts retail). Not only will this thing work as an IP camera, it can work as a full fledged stand-alone VMS.

In other words, the question is: if some washed up coder in Copenhagen can build a fully functional “IP camera” for $40, I think you’re going to face a tough time if you’ve based your entire organization around selling your cheapest cameras for $250+ (they may be “even more good enough”, but who cares?).

Obviously, my camera is not going to be materially different from the other guy’s cameras. We’re all going to use the same bits and pieces, including software, even the damn protocols are going to be the same.

So, I think we’re going to see a race to the bottom in terms of prices. The cameras will look and perform almost identically across brands, use the same protocols, and be completely interchangeable, much to the chagrin of the incumbents, so the USP for the brands in this realm will have be something else.

VMS Software, perhaps…








3 thoughts on “The Parts of an IP Camera

  1. Jacob says:

    I believe that companies who have traditionally built their own cameras are more and more moving to ODM or OEM models in abandonment of their own in-house-designed models. Why invest in your own camera development when you can buy-and-rebrand a camera made by someone else? (By the way, this is why I no longer work on IP cameras).

    Customers need to realize that (with some exceptions) camera brands no longer represent a camera design, but instead represent testing, quality assurance, technical support, and integration solutions for a camera made elsewhere.

    • prescienta says:

      Maybe it’s like when naive users buy a PC. Having built most of my workstations myself, I am interested in the CPU, GPU and RAM, and NOT the brand of PC. E.g. “I have an 4700K i7 with GeForce 1070 and 16 GB DDR4 RAM” vs. I have a “Dell Inspiron 2000”. The latter makes no sense to me.

      So when you buy a camera, the optics and sensor brand and model are probably more important these days, and the brand and model of the camera, less so. But the sensor information is rarely published. The Raspberry PI camera is a Sony IMX219PQ, so I can look up the specs. In contrast, I just checked a random Dahua camera, and it just tells me the size, pixel count, but NOT if the sensor is back-lit (improved light sensitivity) or how well the HDR works (it just says that it has it, but not tell me what kind of HDR it has).

      Generally, the actors in the industry are probably fooling ourselves, believing that the user really cares about all the neat tech we are adding. A lot of them probably care more about the cost and will not pay an extra $300 for the top end camera model, and they don’t really care for the advanced features as long as the video is recorded and played back on demand.

      That said, what kind of work did you do on IP cameras? VMS support or firmware stuff?

      • Jacob says:

        I agree. Camera folks know that comparing specs is difficult for customers, so instead they rely on fancy sales presentations and brand recognition to sell their product. In reality, only a small handful of names win at brand integrity, which reduces things to a competition of price.

        I worked mostly on camera ONVIF implementation… networking, Profile G, etc.

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