The history of ARTPEC, the foundation of our product quality

Article
September 27, 2021
It was late autumn 1999 when products with our very first ARTPEC system on chip (SoC) were released. Now, more than twenty years later, we are on the eighth version of the SoC. It’s a product of years of experience, knowledge, and passion for high-quality technology and a key part of our company’s history. Together with Stefan Lundberg, Senior Expert Engineer, Technologies at Axis, we looked back over the twenty plus years of our ARTPEC journey and talked about key insights and developments.

The secret behind Axis cameras

The ARTPEC SoC is a vital component of our products as it provides the basis for essential capabilities like image quality, analytics features, and coding performance. It’s the “secret” behind our highly advanced network cameras. During the design process for each subsequent generation of ARTPEC, we have had to address a recurring and crucial challenge: the tradeoff between performance and features versus cost and power consumption. Each ARTPEC generation added not only pixel throughput but also improved or new critical features. The number of transistors came close to doubling with each new ARTPEC SoC, but the size, power consumption, and cost have stayed almost the same.

A revolutionary SoC

“Our ARTPEC SoCs were a small revolution – for us and our industry. While we might not have invented the wheel, we did revolutionize the way video is transferred, adding a lot of flexibility and opportunities for novel applications. The invention of ARTPEC enabled us to develop completely new technologies, such as Axis Forensic Wide Dynamic Range (WDR), Axis Zipstream data compression technology, and powerful analytics that both run on the edge and are based on deep learning,” says Stefan.

 The invention of ARTPEC enabled us to develop completely new technologies

These technologies could not have been brought to market without the SoC, but it did not happen overnight. It was the result of many achievements over time that are the cornerstones in our ARTPEC journey – small turning points that slowly changed the industry. For example, ARTPEC-1 made it possible to create the first cost-efficient network camera product with full video performance. With ARTPEC-3, we were able to deliver top-quality video with higher resolution than the analog video cameras of the day.  ARTPEC-5 let us improve our WDR solution, which resulted in what we call Forensic Capture. Forensic Capture stood out from competitor solutions of its day by prioritizing visibility, detail over mere aesthetics. For the first time, it became possible to effectively use video cameras under difficult light conditions such as in storefronts with large glass facades in direct sunlight. The method has since become an industry standard. Another equally revolutionary innovation made possible by ARTPEC-5 was our Zipstream compression technology, which preserves forensic detail in full resolution, while significantly lowering bandwidth and storage requirements.

The first ARTPEC SoC and a new way to innovate

AXIS 200
The world's first network camera, Neteye 200

While there was no ARTPEC SoC in the world’s first network camera, our Neteye 200 camera, but we soon realized that available off-the-shelf SoCs could not deliver the level of performance we wanted going forward. That realization kicked off the development of our first ARTPEC SoC. We started working on it in late autumn 1996 and released the first ARTPEC-based product, AXIS 2100, at Comdex in November 1999.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but ARTPEC would become the core element that enabled us to expand our offering with limited resources from a few products to a complete portfolio that later would revolutionize the surveillance industry,” states Stefan.

Of course, revolutions do not happen overnight. It was a process. Each generation of SoC addressed a new main goal and we had to constantly reinvent our way of working as complexity increased.

“One key factor that helped us get where we are today is our way of tackling the innovation process. The core technologies department is organized into independent groups that all focus on problems and improvements in several fields. We gave them the freedom to explore and focus on the areas they thought would have the biggest potential in the future. The only responsibility the teams had was to deliver something for the next ARTPEC generation. Finding inspiration from other markets and approaching certain issues together solved a lot of problems in our industry,“ explains Stefan.

Our ARTPEC cornerstones

Thanks to ARTPEC-1’s dedicated image and compression hardware we could stream video directly from the camera to a remote location using the Internet without the need for a massive amount of equipment. We simply required users to point the web browser to the embedded web server in the camera and we used standard IT protocols to transfer the video. That was revolutionary since the Internet was new and other video transfer solutions used dedicated video cables.

ARTPEC 1
ARTPEC-1, the first generation chip

AXIS 2100, the first network cameras using ARTPEC-1, was revolutionary too with its internal firmware based on a completely new embedded operating system, which is known today as embedded Linux. To enable fast and efficient development of a portfolio of products we chose to scrap the proprietary RTOS (Real-Time Operating System) and use μClinux, which we believed was right for Axis to grow with. In fact, AXIS 2100 was the first mass-produced product in the world that used embedded Linux. Looking back, we could not have made a better decision – even though it required a lot of extra work to implement all kinds of now-standard pieces like a flash-based file system we could grow together with Linux.

ARTPEC-2, which was launched in 2003, made much better performance possible, and we also started experimenting with a more efficient video encoding technology called MPEG.

ARTPEC-3 was completed four years later, and it opened the door to IP-video with best-in-class throughput. For the first time, we combined the best video encoder of its time (H.264/AVC) with the rest of the system into a single SoC that could deliver high-quality HDTV resolution.

In 2011 we launched ARTPEC-4, which enabled a technology that solved two remaining issues: limited dynamic range and light sensitivity. Calling the solution Lightfinder, we released the first progressive-scan camera. It significantly outperformed the interlaced-scan analog cameras of the time. ARTPEC-4 also underpinned a new wide dynamic range (WDR) solution that worked well and was widely requested. In 2013, with the development of ARTPEC-5, we were able to  further improve our WDR technology with a solution called Forensic Capture WDR.

Our sixth generation of ARTPEC was released in 2017. It added a new level of security and paved the way for the release of ARTPEC-7 two years later.

ARTPEC-7 enabled enhanced security features in Axis cameras including signed firmware and secure boot. It became the basis for improvements to all the signature Axis technologies for difficult light conditions including Axis Lightfinder 2.0 and Forensic WDR and it extended the range of IR illumination. It also facilitated a choice of the H.264 and H.265 codec and featured a real-time detection engine for object-classification analytics.

ARTPEC today

The eighth generation of ARTPEC SoC.
The eighth generation of ARTPEC SoC.

Today the ARTPEC SoC is in its eight generation. Much more sophisticated than its early predecessors, we designed it first and foremost to support powerful analytics applications based on deep learning on the edge. For example, it facilitates highly nuanced object classification that distinguishes between bikes, cars, buses, trucks, and so on. This is the basis for AXIS Object Analytics and will also open the door to other analytics based on deep learning – including tailor-made applications from our partners. ARTPEC-8 continues to support the array of remarkable capabilities and features first seen with the implementation of ARTPEC-7. These include superior imaging, enhanced security, powerful compression, and impressive analytics on the edge.

“The best way to illustrate 20 years of progress is to directly compare the development between the very first ARTPEC SoC and our latest ARTPEC-8 SoC,”  states Stefan, “While the main flow of pixels between sensors and network is the same for both types, ARTPEC-1 only supported image delivery and offered no flexibility. Putting their differences in context this means, ARTPEC-8 has over 100 times the performance of the first SoC while still maintaining a similar size and price.”

The future of ARTPEC

“Looking at the developments we’ve made, I can say that the capabilities that have evolved the most over the years are image quality and the capacity for analytics, including analytics based on deep learning. Both have been and will continue to be game changers for the surveillance industry,” says Stefan.

The ARTPEC SoC – and the fact that we design it in-house and control its manufacturing – is our foundation for creating innovative products that meet our customers’ needs today and in the future. It is hard to predict – or even imagine – what developments that the next 20 years with ARTPEC will bring, but we are certainly excited about the potential.

Find out more about our history and milestones
The moments that made us