The spark behind Lightfinder
Axis Lightfinder technology provides a network camera with extreme light sensitivity. In very low light, where other cameras would switch to night mode and grayscale video, cameras with Lightfinder stay in day mode and keep delivering color. Being able to see color even during the night may be the crucial detail that helps to identify a person or vehicle. Cameras with this technology need less light to produce good footage, which results also in shorter exposure time. This keeps the blur and noise in the images to a minimum. The story of the invention of Lightfinder is a story of collaboration, self-challenge and the will to make a difference.
We talked to Andres Vigren, Axis Global Product Manager and Marie Grönlund, Axis Senior Project Manager. When they were asked what motivated them for this project execution, they had very different, but strong personal motivations, “I love to make customers happy and surprise them with value. I want to give them a “wow”- moment,” says Andres. Marie on the other side loves the challenge: “I enjoy solving difficult problems and the core technologies team wanted to show the world that we’re ready to make a huge difference. What always drives me, is also a dedicated team that stands up for its idea and makes an effort.”
The spark of an idea
Just before the Lightfinder was invented, the surveillance camera market was in the middle of a battle – the fight between two camps: analog versus IP cameras. Andres as global product manager was able to get some insights from the customers, who were altogether happy with the quality of the images, but who also pointed out that the analog cameras delivered better results in the darkness. When he passed this feedback on, the team’s ambition was awakened. “We didn’t just want to equal analog cameras, but show the industry that our IP cameras were better than any analog camera, that they can surpass analog technology even in that field – especially because this challenge was the only one IP was still lacking behind compared to analog,” explains Marie. The reason why analog cameras performed so well in dark environments was because of their low resolution. As Axis wanted to take over the last advantage of analog cameras, the approach was to create an IP camera which delivered high-resolution images in low light or dark surroundings. Despite being a completely new and, therefore, rather risky idea, Marie and Andres could convince the decision-makers at Axis that backing up this project would be worth it. They were positive that this had the potential to dethrone analog cameras once and for all. They started their new project with a core team of three engineers and a software expert, but as they progressed more and more people from other departments wanted to get on board. “When the decision to proceed with our new solution was made, there was already a similar project running. But having this specific approach to solving the low-light issue of cameras made us rethink the way we were tackling this problem,” says Marie.
The challenges of “taming a wild sensor”
Coming up with a device that could overcome these difficulties was clearly not an easy task and the path was not without challenges. It was a huge mechanic project and what was a good decision from the production side, was not necessarily good or easy to implement from the technology side. “We needed to combine the pieces we already had in a completely unique way and as the very light-sensitive sensor had never really been used before, it was quite challenging to integrate it into an existing camera. Especially since it was a prototype which didn’t work perfectly yet,” states Marie. “I think, the probably biggest technical obstacle was, in fact, integrating the sensor – it was like a wild horse that we had to tame to make it compatible with our digital image processing algorithms, chips and other devices,” adds Andres.
The combination of the new sensors, the ARTPEC-4 chip, significantly higher light sensitivity and its calibration were the main factors that ultimately defined the base of the successful Lightfinder technology.
The realization and “wow- moment”
The teams truly realized the potential of the technology during the first demos and were stunned by the sensitivity of the sensor combined with the lenses. “I remember this very vividly because I was really surprised by how good the quality was. I just thought ‘Wow! This is something that will change the market!’,” says Andres. The camera was in fact too good for the demonstration set up: In the room in which the camera was tested was also a computer and the team had to cover its light (and later even leave the room with the computer) as it was too bright for the scene and the light-sensitive sensor. But even when they turned the room almost pitch black, the camera allowed the group to see every detail.”
It took one year from the first prototype to the official launch. Around the same time, Axis launched an High Dynamic Range (HDR) camera (also known as Wide Dynamic Range, WDR), which was made to deliver perfect images in very bright scenarios. The first idea was to wait until the Lightfinder technology was perfected to put both features in one camera, but the team was too excited about the success of Lightfinder. It had to go on the market. Today, the majority of Axis cameras include both of these features.
Thinking back to the reactions of the clients, there was one particular use case that made an impression. One of the first clients who got to test the new camera was a company that needed the cameras to monitor railroad tracks as they had always been a challenge to monitor properly. It’s not possible to install lights on the whole route, but operators need to be able to see if there’s a blockade of any kind on the tracks. The client loved the results and the demo footage was later used for marketing purposes.
Nurturing innovative companies
The Lightfinder was a market changing invention born from the innovative work culture at Axis. But what does it take for a company to be innovative? If we ask our two innovators, it’s the mixture of providing employees with the time and resources to look at new things. Having the chance to experiment with, for example, new sensors instead of looking at old products and ideas, but also looking at the work of competitors can be the key to find the next innovation. “I think, it’s also the mindset of the people working in a company: For example, I want to surprise customers and solve a problem by providing them with a unique product that makes their lives easier. To be able to do that, I need to create a device like that - or at least the idea which is an innovative approach,” adds Andres.
I want to surprise customers and solve a problem by providing them with a unique product that makes their lives easier
The future of Lightfinder
Predicting the future when it comes to technological development and inventions is almost impossible with all the new products that are being launched every year. But what is possible, is setting goals for the future and looking at the different industries that influence the market the most. Regarding the Lightfinder technology, it’ll be important to monitor and support the development of the sensors market, which is currently driven by the car industry.
“We knew that powerful high-resolution cameras in combination with light-sensitivity would be an important focus. That’s what we focused on when we brought Lightfinder to the next level with Lightfinder 2.0, which can be found in camera models with 4K resolution such as AXIS Q1798-LE”, explains Andres, “The ultra-high light-sensitive image sensor allows us to get great forensic images with a high pixel density that’s perfect for analytics. The second generation of Lightfinder focused on details like adjustable noise filters and auto exposure sliders. Features that would allow to adjust the image quality according to the scenario and optimizing the exposure time depending on object speed and position of the camera. Thus, resulting in even clearer and more detailed images that are sharp even when an object is moving. Plus, our big advantage is the fact that Axis develops its own chips, therefore, we can keep influencing our algorithms and can optimize it for the respective use case in the future. We’re not taking anything off the shelf. Instead, we decide from the start which elements we integrate into the device.”, says Andres.
If we take a look at the upcoming innovations at Axis itself, it becomes clear that they will have a huge influence on future devices. “With the new, even more powerful ARTPEC-7 chip, improved sensors and algorithms as well as the support from Canon when it comes to lenses, gives us all the high-quality tools we need. We just have to tie it together,” says Marie.