The Next Level

The Next Level

The Next Level Surveillance knows no boundaries and is ready to explore retail

Today, businesses can’t do without large investments in camera infrastructure, and up until now, video surveillance has existed for the sole purpose of security. Prism Skylabs aims to change that. “Companies around the world spend tens of billions of dollars to install millions of video cameras and surveillance networks in an attempt to understand their particular corner of the world,” said Steve Russell, founder of Prism Skylabs.

Prism, launched in mid-September at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, is working on a cloud-based service aimed at retailers that uses the existing video infrastructure to bring new, more tangible experiences to potential customers who might be browsing various sites, such as Yelp, UrbanSpoon, Facebook and OpenTable. The service brings physical spaces online and enables businesses to engage with their customers in new and meaningful ways. Moving beyond the standard Google Street View, Prism allows Web users to explore businesses from any Web-enabled device and get the information they need prior to entering a business.

For example, a restaurant or bar owner can use Prism to review a visual heat map of activity to help understand how Yelp ratings affect restaurant traffic. For a retail shop owner, it means comparing local weather against foot traffic to explain a recent barrage of slow sales totals. On the other hand, for restaurant patrons, it may mean observing a privacy-protected view into the same space to determine how likely they are to find a seat if they stop by, reading recent reviews and checking out the daily specials, or having an opportunity to book a table. And for a shopper on a mission to find a specific item, it means the ability to see if a store has restocked it or is still awaiting shipment.

Already, the response from both businesses and consumers has been overwhelming. Prism, operating only since early July, was named the runner-up out of 31 companies launching at the prestigious TechCrunch event and is gaining momentum on its closed beta program, which has garnered hundreds of applications from businesses since the launch.

Prism is the brainchild of technology visionary Russell, the founding CEO and current chairman of intelligent video provider 3VR, and company builder Ron Palmeri, the guy behind GrandCentral/GoogleVoice and Scout Labs. Bolstering these two founders is an impressive roster of scientists and engineers with backgrounds in computer vision, search and large-scale social media site development, as well as an impressive list of Silicon Valley investors including Ron Conway, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s Tomorrow Ventures and the CrunchFund, founded by former editor of TechCrunch and serial entrepreneur Michael Arrington.

“All Pixels Are Not Created Equal”

“The security industry is prime for true disruption. For years, companies have been looking for new ways to leverage their heavy surveillance investments across multiple business units,” Palmeri said. “We see a tremendous opportunity for security directors and business owners to make use of their existing camera networks and leverage them as a means to not only optimize their business, but also grow it.”

According to Russell, Prism’s processing techniques (they’ve filed more than 20 patents in the past three months) transform surveillance video, which is often washed out and noisy, by enhancing the resolution, dynamic range and image quality. All business owners need to do is download free software that automatically detects cameras and other video sources on their network without disturbing any existing equipment. By doing so, their feeds are linked to Prism’s cloud infrastructure, and video footage is transformed into high-resolution images, pieces of video and useful bits of data. And it’s all stored in the cloud for secure access— anytime, anywhere and on any device.

The point of all of this “video condensation,” as Russell refers to it, is to reduce the data footprint of the video by more than 100 times while increasing its informational content and focusing in on patron activity. Because there are no bandwidth limitations and because video is no longer streaming, owners have the ability to monitor their businesses remotely and produce real-time business reports— Prism calls these “storyboards”—that showcase activity while still protecting customer privacy.

Unlike Google or other technologies that apply blurring techniques after the fact, Prism’s technology is able to pre-process foreground motion details as it learns and understands venues—before the image and video is seen. Prism’s proprietary technology separates out faces and bodies from activity to create real-time visuals. Once those images are created, businesses can apply layers of foreground activity and blurred silhouettes to create beautiful and informative privacy-protected views, as well as build other visualizations useful to understanding a place.

“Not all pixels are created equal. It’s similar to the way a voicemail transcript often lets you understand a message without actually having to listen to it. Our ‘video transcripts’ can take the place of actually watching camera feeds in many instances,” Russell said.

Truly Seeing, Understan ding and Sharing Space

Prism opens up a world of applications for security professionals and business owners, as well as consumers. Once the video feeds are brought to the cloud through Prism, anyone from small business owners to security and loss prevention professionals of larger businesses and chains can access real-time business intelligence and view patterns of customer behavior.

This information is then analyzed, enabling business users to react swiftly. Security professionals can use the information to prevent loss of revenue, while marketers can use ongoing feedback to tune messaging, and on-the-ground business operators can use the information to modify current offerings to meet immediate customer needs.

Prism also uses application programming interfaces (APIs) and video analytics to collect multiple data points into easily scanned dashboards. It integrates easily with point-of-sale (POS), electronic article surveillance (EAS) and other systems to report data, exceptions and reports with visual context; these include customer counts, social media and general Web mentions (for example, FourSquare check-ins at a business or Facebook “likes” of a business), and even weather data.

With Prism, retailers can fine-tune merchandising efforts by having access to visualizations that show traffic over time in response to display positioning or product shifts within the store, and compare that resulting traffic data with transaction data from the POS to measure effectiveness. Restaurants have the opportunity to continuously monitor congestion—and even share that with its customers—to effectively distribute traffic, reduce wait times and make for an overall better experience for their customers.

“One of our ‘video-synths’ is able to show a store manager how many of a specific item were purchased and where they were picked up, how many people entered the store through the front door, how many people tweeted about the company and how many used Four- Square to check into the location within any given time period. This type of information mashed-up between previously siloed sources has never been readily accessible,” Palmeri said.

The Creamery, a San Franciscobased coffee shop, is Prism’s first public customer and the first to report on the company’s technology. While the owner, Ivor Bradley, is classically trained at the Four Seasons, he also embraces new technology such as user review website Yelp, location-based social networking website FourSquare and Google Places, among others. Bradley also has a surveillance network but says he rarely uses or monitors the footage.

“Being able to determine how social media activity is impacting my business is absolutely critical,” Bradley said. “My customers are very tech-savvy and are very active on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and such. To be able to aggregate, visualize and understand how one positive review or negative status update affects foot traffic in the days following not only helps my business, but also helps me serve my customers better.”

Equipped with real-time data about their business, owners, like Bradley, as well as security professionals have an unprecedented opportunity to build relationships with their customers. It provides new communication tools for businesses to reach customers wherever they are and enables patrons to share visuals and information with their personal networks—narrowing the gap between the online and offline worlds.

“With Prism, I’ve created custom, privacy-protected views of my shop that I’m able to syndicate across The Creamery’s website, Twitter page, Facebook and Yelp profiles. My customers can now get a real-time peek into what’s actually happening—what coffee is brewing, what the specials are, if we’re caught in the lunch rush—all from their laptops or smartphones,” Bradley said.

Spacing Out in San Francisco

Consumers increasingly expect the same ease and access they have online in the offline world, and businesses are trying to convert online browsing into offline purchasing, a phenomenon called “online-to-offline convergence.” By providing an in-depth view of offline spaces online, complete with multiple levels of information, Prism provides consumers with that immersive experience they’re craving.

Consumers are able to use a smartphone to see how busy a restaurant is, connect with services such as Yelp and OpenTable, or engage with friends by sharing real-time images. This results in a more integrated view of and deeper connection with what’s happening inside and outside a business—physically, socially and statistically—than ever before.

Russell and Palmeri note that Prism offers businesses a significant competitive advantage in the midst of the hundreds of options served up to consumers on various directory and mapping sites.

“Think about the process of finding a new dinner spot online,” Palmeri said. “There’s a massive difference between a retailer with a present-day Google Street View image, where the visual stops at the front door, and one with a Prism view, which shows not only the interior design of the space but also whether or not it’s crowded and what the night’s specials are, along with a list of user reviews about the place and a ‘book a table now’ option. As consumers get used to having the Prism view option, those businesses that don’t offer it will begin to feel like darkened store fronts.”

The sky’s the limit

The Creamery is just the first of many public customers to come, says Russell. Prism is already working with a number of businesses, including restaurants, fashion retailers and drug stores, in its closed beta program, with use cases being unique to each venue and space. “The possibilities are endless, and we’re just getting started,” Russell said.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Security Today.

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