On almost every weekend over the course of several weeks, vandals smashed windows at Hillsdale Public School in Oshawa, Ont. Workers would replace the windows only for the vandals break them again.
Teacher Brian Farrugia thought there had to be a technological solution. He tooled around the Internet and came across a beta version of free video security software called Vitamin D. He downloaded it and tried it at home.
"And it worked perfectly," Mr. Farrugia said. "I was really impressed with it."
He approached his principal, Nick Palumbo, who approved spending about $90 to buy a couple of webcams to try the software at the school. That weekend, the vandals returned - only this time, a camera captured their movements, which triggered a Vitamin D alert that was sent by text message to Mr. Farrugia and his principal. When they checked computers on Monday morning, they identified the vandals, who happened to be former students.
"We had the culprits arrested and we haven't had a problem since," Mr. Farrugia said.
His experience so pleased Vitamin D that the company, based in Menlo Park, Calif., posted Mr. Farrugia's testimonial on its website. Vitamin D even offered him a full version of the software, although he hasn't taken the company up because the free version worked so well.
That freebie has been extremely popular, said Vitamin D spokesperson Celeste Baranski. Maybe too popular. About 100,000 copies have been downloaded. More advanced versions sell for $49 and $199 (U.S.), but they account for only about one per cent of Vitamin D downloads.
Shortly after launching in February this year, Ms. Baranski and her partners dissolved Vitamin D Inc. because they did not get enough venture capital to pay their salaries full time. However, they transferred ownership of the software to a limited liability corporation, called Vitamin D Video, which the partners are now running in their spare time.
"So we've all gotten other jobs and we're continuing to sell and support the app on the website," Ms. Baranski said.
Vitamin D is one of many companies selling video surveillance software over the Internet. Another is Aimetis Corporation, of Waterloo, Ont. Founded in 2003 by Justin Schorn and Mike Janzen, Aimetis has grown to about 50 employees with international offices in Frankfurt and Shanghai as well as close to 500 retail partners in about 100 countries, said CEO Marc Holtenhoff.
"One reason that people spend money for video is that when something bad happens they want to go back through the data and look for information," Mr. Holtenhoff said. "But if you have lots of cameras and you store, let's say, 30 days of footage, and you need to find that one event that was interesting, it's very tedious to manually review video."
Video surveillance software filters through that chaff by identifying interesting snippets. Judging from video tutorials on their respective websites, the Aimetis and Vitamin D programs share many similar features, such as rules for when to record events. For example, they both enable the user to mark off which areas in a camera's view are to be ignored. They are also able to ignore most irrelevant or distracting movements, such as wind, fluttering leaves, or clouds.
That isn't to say the algorithms are perfect. Ms. Baranski said Vitamin D errors tend to be false positives, such as mistaking a dog for a person. Mr. Holtenhoff said Aimetis has been refined to reduce false positives by ignoring background information like rain and shadows.
Aimetis Symphony software comes in three versions, starting with a standard version that costs $99 per camera for a licence in perpetuity. The company offers a free 60-day trial for the standard version. Its professional and enterprise versions of the software have more features. For instance, the enterprise version includes analytics, which sift through piles of raw data for patterns, such as customer movements in a store. That can help managers determine staffing needs and where best to place signage, for example.
Unlike Vitamin D, which has Mac and PC versions, Aimetis only runs on PCs. On the other hand, it will work with analog cameras whereas Vitamin D only works with digital webcams or IP cameras, which have an Internet address.
Dr. David Lowe, a computer scientist at the University of B.C., has a website with links to several video security software sites, including Vitamin D and Aimetis. While he didn't have detailed information about the products, he said some of their claims appear to be overstated.
"Therefore, the automated analysis should be limited to the role of assistant, in which the computer system goes through large amounts of video and tags potentially interesting parts or alerts a person," Dr. Lowe said in an e-mail. "The final analysis should be done by a person and not a machine."
The Aimetis website boats customers around the world, such as Munich Airport, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and Sweden's ICA supermarkets. Canadian customers include the Pizza Pizza food chain, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., and Alexanian Carpet and Flooring in Ontario.
"We use it mostly for security and traffic flow," said Alexanian president Andrew Alexanian. "I can be in my office in Hamilton and see what's happening at the store in London, for example, just on my computer."
About eight months ago, the company installed systems at several of its 18 locations, which cost about $6,500 for each site. That included the cost of the servers and cameras.
The benefits were almost immediate. The software enabled the company to crack a case of employee theft at its London warehouse. The worker has since been fired and the theft problem resolved.
"People know they're being recorded now so that's certainly a deterrent in itself," Mr. Alexanian said. "And secondly, it's just easier to manage an offsite warehouse."
The software is also popular with car dealerships. Freedom Ford in Edmonton installed an Aimetis system about six years ago, said parts manager Chris Welt.
"We use them strictly for security," Mr. Welt said, adding that an offsite security company monitors input from 20 wired and wireless cameras on the car lot. "We don't use it for identification or anything like that. It's strictly notification."
If there's an incident, the security company can call the dealership's switchboard and patch into the public address system. Mr. Welt cited a case where the software detected vandals kicking mirrors off cars on the lot. When a voice over the PA informed the vandals they were caught on camera, they fled the scene.
The system certainly helps the bottom line. Mr. Welt couldn't say how much, but he noted that thieves once stole wheels and tires valued at $8,000 off a high-performance Dodge Charger SRT8. Vandalism can also be costly.
"If you kick the mirror off a vehicle and scratch the paint, that's a $1,000 bill," Mr. Welt said. "It doesn't take too long to add up. So if you can stop that immediately or minimize it, boy you're far ahead."