Digital Video

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2004-04-04 Print this article Print

Digital Video

The advent of digital means of capturing moving images gives casinos the ability to record almost unlimited views of what goes on inside (or even outside) their walls every day. Mining software then can search and analyze the images intelligently.

Even when "Mr. X" or members of his team arent caught winning big, casinos may spot his actions hours or days later, while reviewing digital files. Casinos typically keep seven days worth of video in active memory on computer systems for immediate analysis—and longer, in more permanent storage, for legal records.

Thought Police would love a modern Las Vegas casino, monitored as it is by thousands of cameras—in every hallway, elevator, and public space, aside from bathrooms and guest rooms. A single poker table might have as many as 60 cameras trained on it.

Walk through one of the unmarked doors off the casino floor at the MGM Grand, and up a few flights of stairs, and youll find yourself in a scene seemingly out of George Orwells "1984"—a dimly-lit, cluttered space filled with video screens. This is the MGMs gaming-surveillance room, from which Ron Buono, executive director of surveillance and his crew watch the feed from the hundreds of cameras that stud the casinos ceiling. You cant scratch your nose near a gaming table at MGM without having it recorded on one of the 900 videotape recorders mounted in racks in a room across the hall.

Nine hundred recorders means 900 tape changes every eight hours. To keep seven days of tape on record, Buonos staff must manage nearly 19,000 tapes—and thats just active ones.

The days of videotape recorders are numbered. In a smaller rack in the same room is their replacement: a digital video-recording system from American Dynamics, a San Diego subsidiary of Tyco International. Digital video is revolutionizing surveillance, making it easier to use software to control camera coverage and to search through hours of video—all without ever swapping a VHS tape. (See Dossier, September 2003.)

Digital video does more for Buono than cut down on tape swapping—it makes it easier to program video systems to alert operators to unusual activity, provides better facial images and reduces time required to find specific frames of video from hours to seconds. It also gives regulators the ability to check in remotely on any of the MGMs 1,400 cameras.

In its private gaming rooms, the MGM Grand has been testing a small system from American Dynamics, in conjunction with the Nevada Gaming Commission. The system stores video images on a disk drive, while also transmitting them directly to the gaming commission. While the cost of connecting one video stream to a digital-recording port is about $1,000—ten times the cost of an analog VCR—the total cost of ownership is tiny in comparison. Buono says the savings in labor and reduced replacement cost alone will quickly pay for the difference.

The only limit is disk space, which has grown increasingly inexpensive. Meanwhile, every minute of activity captured by every camera can be searched for a specific event. Detail can be critical. A system such as this can search hundreds of hours of video for changes in a small area of its field of view—a stack of chips, for example, or someone surreptitiously pocketing those chips . This search now takes minutes, where searching tape took hours.

"You can narrow down the search to a specific time frame, and look for changes in areas down to a pixel," says Wayne Dorris, an American Dynamics sales engineer serving the MGM Grand.

Thats a feature thats even more important to casino surveillance in many respects than facial recognition. According to Buono, about 95% of the time a fraud occurs, it involves an employee or a former employee—either because they made a mistake in procedure, or because they were colluding with a gambler to get a cut of his winnings.

How This Applies to Domestic Security: Tom Ridges homeland-security operations could use digital-video systems to monitor train platforms and other remote locations, spotting unusual activity and alerting responders quickly to suspicious activity—such as a person placing an object on the tracks or touching overhead wires. Even busy train, plane and bus stations could benefit. Until a fatal shooting incident on July 4, 2002, Los Angeles International Airport had just five surveillance cameras.

Next Page: Surveillance either accepted or ignored.

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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