The Evolution of Intercom
- By Ralph C. Jensen
- May 01, 2018
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
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
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
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Security Today.