The spark behind Lightfinder

Johannesburg, 22 Jul 2019
Read time 8min 10sec

When the Axis inventor team launched Lightfinder, it changed the surveillance camera market completely, allowing forensic detail in low-to-zero light conditions. But how did the team bring colour to a greyscale world? Two of the people who worked in the core team of this invention and who were part of the development process right from the beginning, gave us an insight into the whole experience.

Axis Lightfinder technology provides a network camera with extreme light sensitivity. In very low light, where other cameras would switch to night mode and greyscale video, cameras with Lightfinder stay in day mode and keep delivering colour. Being able to see colour 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 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 Vigren. Grönlund, on the other hand, 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: analogue versus IP cameras. Vigren, 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 analogue cameras delivered better results in the darkness. When he passed on this feedback, the team’s ambition was awakened. “We didn’t just want to equal analogue cameras, but show the industry that our IP cameras were better than any analogue camera, that they can surpass analogue technology even in that field – especially because this challenge was the only one IP was still lacking compared to analogue,” explains Grönlund. The reason why analogue cameras performed so well in dark environments was because of their low resolution. As Axis wanted to take over the last advantage of analogue cameras, the approach was to create an IP camera that delivered high-resolution images in low light or dark surroundings. 

Despite being a completely new and, therefore, rather risky idea, Grönlund and Vigren could convince the decision-makers at Axis that backing this project would be worth it. They were positive it had the potential to dethrone analogue 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 Grönlund.

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 mechanical 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 Grönlund. “I think, probably, the 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 Vigren.

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 realisation and “wow" moment

The teams truly realised 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 Vigren. The camera was, in fact, too good for the demonstration set-up: in the room in which the camera was tested,  there 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.”

Lighting comparison between the iPhone 8, the human eye and Axis Lightfinder technology:

It took one year from the first prototype to the official launch. Around the same time, Axis launched a 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 Vigren.

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. “I am sure that we will see really powerful high-resolution cameras with extremely good light sensitivity within the next 12 months. Our big advantage is the fact that Axis develops its own chips, therefore, we can influence our algorithms and can optimise it for the respective use case. We’re not taking anything off the shelf. Instead, we decide from the start which elements we integrate into the device,” say Vigren and Grönlund.

If we take a look at the upcoming innovations at Axis itself, it becomes clear 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 Grönlund.

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