The Evolution of Intercom

Cover Story

The Evolution of Intercom

In 1970, intercoms were all about convenience. They made it easy for secretaries to communicate with their boss and for company employees to connect between offices within the same building. At home, parents could simultaneously call kids scattered throughout the home to come to dinner.

In the years since intercoms were brought to North America, the technology behind them has evolved from a simple communications device to a vital part of any organization’s security plan.

“Many of those early home systems had built-in radios to share music in each room making them in some ways the first attempt at a home theater experience,” said Paul Hefty, technical sales and support engineer and a 30-year employee of Aiphone.

The intercom, however, was meant for bigger and better things. The addition of a black-and-white camera and inside video screen created the first video door answering system in 1984. It was a big hit with homeowners in Japan and Europe. It never really caught on culturally in the U.S. with many families not even locking the front door, let alone adding a video intercom. At that time, the security industry hadn’t started to look at video intercoms as a way to secure commercial buildings, government institutions or schools.

There was more coming—and soon. Intercom engineers soon eliminated the initial need for coax cable, creating an easy-to-install, two-wire system. They kept going with more improvements, introducing the first multi-directional, pan-and-tilt video system. Other developments followed with a color system in 1998, video intercoms were becoming a standard part of the security toolbox.

So, where can you find hack-proof, wired video intercoms installed today? They’re protecting exterior and interior doors at schools, college and university campuses; local, state and government facilities; hospitals; commercial buildings; and multi-tenant residential and mix-use structures. Wired systems are preferred in most commercial, industrial or multi-residential installations as they are far less vulnerable to hackers than are wireless, Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Intercoms have also been moved outdoors serving as the heart of emergency stations, the blue-light towers installed around campuses or parking facilities, to provide instant contact to security personnel.

Many of the intercom features we take for granted today are possible because of the explosion of digital corporate networks. Previous analog technology limited the maximum size of security systems, the distance they could cover and available power sources. With modern technology, these constraints are gone.

“There’s absolutely no doubt the move from analog to a digital network was a huge leap forward for the security industry in general,” Hefty said. “It’s changed how and where our products could be used.”

Today, one guard in a security operations center can monitor and control multiple entries or emergency stations between facilities spread across a campus or the country. That same guard can even use a smartphone app to remain in control of the system while on patrol. Multi-tenant apartment buildings use video intercoms in place of a second-shift doorman. Residents decide who enters the building after hours. Operators of unmanned parking facilities count on networked video intercoms to keep in touch with their customers.

As the security industry has evolved with best practices centered on a layered approach mixing physical devices and digital assets. Doors, bollards, key cards, intercoms and cameras are just some of the physical devices used to secure a facility or campus. VMS, network servers and software tools allow the integration of digital device data for more effective control of the overall system. Aiphone’s network-based products use open standards making it easy for integrators to weave together layers of security controlled from a single device, such as an intercom master station on a security guard’s desk.

Hefty used a metaphor to describe the integration of video surveillance, access control and intercoms to protect entries.

“It’s a three-legged stool,” he said. “Cameras are the first leg allowing you to see who’s there. The next leg, access control—today’s modern-day keys—allows you know who a person is based on a credential or a biometric. Intercoms are the third and important leg. Just because I can see you doesn’t mean I should allow you into the building. You need the intercom’s communication capability to help determine visitors’ intent before allowing them in.”

The security industry often sees increased sales following tragic events. Hefty said that was true following two events this century. The first was the 2001 attack on New York City’s World Trade Center.

“After 9/11, companies began adding locks to doors and keeping them locked,” he said. “But then employees asked, ‘How do I let our customers in without having to always walk over to the door?’ or ‘How do I even know if there’s someone at the door or gate?’ Intercoms’ communication and video capabilities took care of that problem.”

Schools were forced into a new reality following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that resulted in 26 students and teachers being killed.

“Schools understood the need to lock doors,” said Hefty. “Budgets prevented all but a few from taking steps to protect entries. After Sandy Hook, parents demanded solutions and administrators found the money even if it meant deferring other expenses.”

As schools began protecting entries, intercoms became the go-to technology for communication and security. Audie products were installed so often many architects and engineers began specifying an audio product where they wanted a video intercom installed. What’s coming next for intercoms? Hefty said he sees more customization by end users to make building entries an even more convenient process for employees and visitors.

“Now you push a button to talk to someone on the other side of the door,” Hefty said. “Soon that button may get you a greeting with instructions for locating the receptionist, a person or department. Integrating intercoms with the access control system will make the entry process effortless.”

More of that effortless and integrated operation is found on the new Aiphone IX Series 2 video intercom. Master stations can be programmed to serve as virtual receptionists to assist lobby visitors. Door stations can be used to contact security after hours. The master stations can also act as a hub to scan video from other door stations, as well as from nearby CCTV cameras.

The intercom also provides line supervision and device checks— warning of problems with the network connection or system component failures. It’s backwards and forward compatible meaning it will work with the wide breadth of existing products and future technology, eliminating any need to rip and replace as an end user’s needs grow and change.

Another possible integration being tested involves video intercoms and facial recognition technology. Video intercoms are typically mounted at facial height, making them an ideal tool for helping improve facial recognition. Schools are interested in registering parents and caretakers, so they’ll be recognized as an authorized adult to pick up a child. Another application might one day let registered employees walk through entries without the need of an access control reader and card. The intercom will still serve as a video sentry to assist unregistered visitors.

Like any company exploring new technology, Aiphone takes pride in how it develops new products. The process starts and ends with the customer—whether it’s a dealer, integrator or end user. Company sales, support and engineering teams frequently ask customers for ideas to improve products. That input is vetted by a product planning committee. Hefty remembered one idea coming from an integrator.

“He suggested we add an optional HID access card reader to eliminate the need for an extra piece of equipment at the door,” Czerwinski said. “That was one of those ideas that had us all asking why we hadn’t thought of it before.”

Another request from the field asked for a way to put durable audio-only stations on a network, similar to what was being done with analog cameras. Hefty said the solution was the IX-1AS adaptor allowing the use of existing wiring that saved time, cut installation costs and eliminated the need to replace a perfectly working product.

With all the attention video intercoms receive today, there’s still a place for audio-only systems. Communication is vital in healthcare applications where privacy laws may bar the use of video. Audio intercom technology serves as the heart of many nurse call stations.

Remember the campus-wide announcements that started each school day? Audio intercoms are still big in schools. You’ll also find audio intercoms in manufacturing facilities, warehouses and even remote logging camps—virtually any place people need reliable communication.

Organizations always want more security and they still need to communicate as they have since the first intercoms were installed. As technology keeps evolving so, too, will security solutions for customers.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Security Today.

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