Digital Video Recording


UPDATE: 1/11/2007


We've recently made a number of changes to our digital recording system due to problems with Logitech software. Here's a summary:

  • Logitech recently came out with the Logitech QuickCam Pro 5000 and has upgraded their software several times from 8.5 to 9.5 and now version 10.0.
  • Version 10.0 software claims to offer a wide variety of improvements including saving in a much smaller WMV video format, choosing where to save to, and a simplified interface. It was my hope that this would solve problems we experienced with 8.5 including out-of-sync audio/video and occasionally no sound at all with videos over 1 hour.
  • PROBLEM: QuickCam 10.0 frequently does not work. At all. After a successful installation, I would click on QuickCam 10.0 and absolutely nothing would happen. The problem appears to be a Windows-based permissions issue because the software would run under some profiles but not under others on the same computer. When it would run for one person, it did appear to work as advertised - but it generally would not work. I spent hours on the phone with Logitech's customer support only to be told that there was something wrong with each computer I was using. I've since had this problem corroborated by several other counseling centers.
  • So, after consulting with other folks in the CCV R&T listserv, I found Window's XP default movie making program, Windows Movie Maker (Start/All Programs/Accessories/Entertainment)
 

Windows Movie Maker observations:

  • Although WMM is not a one-button program like QuickCam is, it seems to be more stable, more flexible, and more reliable.
  • You can name the file before recording.
  • Each counselor can choose their recording directory
  • You can specify the video quality (size, resolution)
  • There is generally only a small delay when stopping a recording session - the file stops instantly and the computer is immediately available for use. With QuickCam 8.5 and 9.5 an hour-long video at low-resolution would take 3-5 minutes to write to the hard drive.
  • It appears as if WMM will successfully run the 4000 or 5000 for equivalent results - thus, no need to upgrade.

So, we've migrated all computers over to the use of Windows Movie Maker with both 5000 and 4000 models. We still have an automated set of scripts (described below) for moving videos to a centralized video server.

ORIGINAL POST:

The use of video/audio recording is an increasingly common practice in counseling centers that host psychology interns or trainees. The following is a description of the video recording system used at Couneling and Psychological Services at Penn State University beginning in the fall of 2005. Just a quick warning - digital video recording (especially for larger centers) is not a small undertaking and it is recommend that trained IT support be used. Also - the following description is fairly technical in detail, so be prepared :)

History: The counseling center at Penn State has rougly 20 trainees in any given year and records approximately 100 hours of video per week. Up to 2005 we used a clunky collection of wall mounted VHS video cameras (about 8) that were linked to VCR's. We used television sets on rolling carts for supervision which were awkward to fit in some offices and took up substantial storage space when not used. The cameras produced very poor audio that could not be easily improved without costly replacement. The poor audio caused untold misery on the part of supervisors. Further, the video system was technical enough that frequent problems cropped up such that sessions were not recorded. Finally, concerns existed about the security of the tapes - because they were tangible objects - they could be lost, stolen, or misplaced. We wanted to replace the system on a budget - but with much higher-quality results.

Choice of Cameras: We chose to move towards digital video recording (i.e., recording onto a computer) for the purposes of ease of use, centralized storage and access of videos, higher quality sound, and reduced security risks.

An informal survey of counseling centers found that the Logitech 4000 Quick Cam Pro was the camera of choice in three centers that were already using it (i.e., UVM, KSU, NMSU). It has an integrated microphone that works perfectly for the purpose - and the video is actually quite good. This camera has already been replaced by the 5000 series as of September, 2005. I examined several other choices including high-end "casino-grade" security surveillance systems which were too expensive at 7-10k, and IP cameras. At first glance, the IP cameras seemed like a good choice as they don't need to be hooked to a computer and can be remotely controlled and viewed. However, problems emerged regarding the complexity of the software to run them, the inability to easily turn them on and off by the trainee, and security concerns - that live video could be viewed by other individuals in network with know-how. If a more targeted software package become available to manage IP cameras down the road - they may be a good option for large scale operations.

In a nutshell - out of the box and installed, the Logitech camera produced superb sound (even with whispering) and good enough video (at 320x240 resolution for smaller file size). However, numerous problems had to be overcome to "scale up" to up our needs - i.e., "dummy-proof", centralized, secure, recording for 40+ users and 100 hours of video per week.

We also purchased Active USB extension cables - which provide another 16 feet of "powered" USB cable so that the camera can be placed anywhere without signal loss (total of about 22 feet).

Problem Solving:

Where to record the videos to:

The software that came with the 4000 does not permit you to choose where to record the video. The camera software sends video, by default, to a folder in "My Documents" that it creates. Because our center has all "My Document" folders stored on a server that is separated from the camera by firewalls and routers -- this posed serious problems. First, the My Documents's server would be overcome by the size of the video files, second - the videos would not be accessible by supervisors, and third - recording and playback did not work well over a tightly secured network. In fact, the native file format of the camera will NOT playback unless it is on the local computer using most video programs. (see below for more about software for playback)

I discovered that you CAN change the directory that the video goes to by editing the registry. Here's the path:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Logitech\Album\Basedir

While this was a great discovery, we were then confronted by three additional problems: (1) the registry would need to be edited for each user on each computer, (2) we have multiple users on most computers - meaning that trainees could view the videos recorded by others, and (3) supervisors could still not access the videos in a centralized location.

In a smaller center (i.e., a handful of trainees that generally use only one computer) - they could be instructed to simply move the videos to a central video server (or secure portable storage device) after recording them. However, in larger centers - the room for error with such a procedure is simply too large.

In the end - our IT support staff did some custom programming that does the following when anyone logs-in to the computer:

  • A protected folder (for local video storage) is created on the local computer that only the trainee or local computer adminstrator can access.
  • The video-recording destination in the registry is set or checked for each user, each time they log in - and all video goes to a secured folder for each specific user.
  • We set up a centralized "job" that runs at midnight to automatically moves all video files from local computers to a central video server. Videos are placed in a secured folder for each user and deleted from the local computer.
  • If video needs to be moved the same day - we created a small program (i.e., icon on the desktop) that will "force" the migration of the videos to the server without any copying, pasting, or dragging and dropping.

Video Playback

Due to the format the video was recorded in (Intel's Indeo codec) - the videos will not play back properly (on computers with XP SP2 or above) using Windows Media Player, Quicktime or others (i.e., sound but no video). Hopefully, Logitech will get the message and upgrade the video-recording options. The videos did playback with RealPlayer - but RealPlayer is considered by many to be, or contain, spyware. Even leaving that alone - it is a "heavy" program that installs other smaller programs and bogs down the system. In the end - we chose to use an open source video player called MPlayer. It started in Linux and has been around for over a decade. We used a Windows "front-end" for the program you can find here.This software is very "thin" and can be run multiple instances of itself from a centralized location. So - we place the program on the server with a shortcut in the folder of each user on the video server. To playback a video - supervisors just drag and drop the desired video onto the MPlayer shortcut.

When a video needs to be played to a larger audience - we either use a projector or burn a DVD. Because I have an older cd-burner (not a dvd burner) I have to use a format called VCD or "Video CD" - which is not playable in all DVD players (only those that specify VCD). When my computer is upgraded with a DVD-burner this will not be an issue. Of course, CD-R's are much cheaper than DVD-R's. CD's are destroyed after use.

Software Changes

The "one-button" control for turning recording on/off that comes with the Logitech camera is actually pretty good (and simple to use) but it is encumbered by a lot of irrelevant software for video-chatting and the like (Logitech QuickCam). I was not able to find a replacement software that worked well with the camera OR was simple enough to ensure error-free operation. One promising option for the future is ActiveWebCam.

What we ultimately decided is that we would restrict users to one entry point called "My Logitech Pictures". We placed an icon on the deskopt to this and renamed it "Video". After opening this - the trainee can click on "Record a new video" - and then return to it when they are done. This bypasses all the confusing/distracting additional software and limits the software use to recording only.

Video Server

The files produced by these cameras (at 320x240 resolution) are BIG. They seem to average around 300-400 megs and range from 200-580 megs for an hour session (I'm not clear why this variation exists). Conservatively assuming 100 hours a week at 500 megs each - you would need a minimum of 50 gigs of storage per week. We are planning to store 3 weeks at a time - and then delete one week of videos every 3 weeks.

To accomodate this number of files we recycled an old server box, added two mirrored 250 Gig hard drives, and a server license. Thus - when someone copies a file to the video server - it automatically goes to both drives. This provides instant backup without the time-delay of a back-up tape - or the security concerns of having videos backed up. If one of the hard-drives fails - then we can just switch to the other drive.

Each trainee video folder is protected so that only they or their supervisor can access the videos. Some senior staff can view all files (i.e., the training director) to get an overview of progress among the trainees.

Budget

I ended up getting 12 cameras and 8 Active USB extension cables. I used BizRate to search for the best price. Our server box was recycled with two new hard drives (250 gigs each) and a server license. I'm not including my time or that for IT programming in cost.

12 Cameras ($59 ea): $720.00
8 Ext. Cables ($15 ea): $120
Server (2 drives and licence): $600
TOTAL COST: $1420.00

Security

Digital video eliminates many of the obvious risks to confidentiality associated with video tapes such as being misplaced, lost, stolen, etc.

However, digital video can be converted to a portable format - and thus presents different risks. Our system has a multi-layered set of security precautions that include multiple firewalls and routers that restrict unauthorized access to the network in general, indiviual computer log-ins, server permissions, and file/folder permissions. Trainees undestand that they are not permitted to make copies off any of the files - and that any DVD's made by me are destroyed after use. As a final precaution - all file access is logged.

Summary

The cost/benefit ratio is fantastic. We met the recording needs of 20 trainees and a total of 40 staff including supervisors. The feedback from supervisors is unanimously positive. The videos have very good quality audio that is easy to hear, supervisors report glee at being able to move to multiple points in a video without fast-forwarding or rewinding - and to view multiple tapes with just the click of a button. The centralized nature of the videos means that supervisors can view videos at any time from any computer in our center - thus expanding their ability to do more comprehensive supervision with less time. In addition, administrators can quickly and easily get an overview of the type and quality of work being done in the center.

The biggest drawback to the system is that when a trainee stops an hour-long recording it takes between 3-4 minutes for the video file to write to the hard drive. Thus - when there are back-to-back clients, trainees must be very mindful of ending on time.

Please contact Ben Locke with any questions.