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Any product comes to market only through the efforts of many individuals whose stories are rarely told. Maybe the most compelling aspect of those stories is that numerous decisions have to be carefully made throughout the course of any product’s development — decisions that also always represent risk.
“Opportunities for developing new products are rare,” says Zhai Guanglei, General Manager of Huawei’s Software Defined Camera (SDC) product line. “So creating a product from scratch gives us a huge sense of accomplishment. We want to redefine the future of smart cameras!”
Racing against the clock is one of the working principles that Huawei employees uphold, but Zhai believes they are also in a race against themselves and an ever-evolving industry.
Before entering the smart camera field, Zhai worked in product Research and Development (R&D) management at Huawei’s Carrier Business Group for more than 10 years. Perhaps most significantly, he led the development of the Packet Switch (PS) core network, which has now become the “heart” of the network — supporting communications for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
During that decade-long period, the Carrier BG developed a mature product R&D system and work became routine. Following on from his success in this role, Zhai was looking for new challenges.
In 2017, Huawei decided to make strategic investments in the rapidly developing video surveillance industry and Zhai joined the team without hesitation. Huawei was still a relative newcomer in the smart camera field, and its decision to pursue video surveillance solutions received a mixed reaction from the industry. Meanwhile, Zhai was confident about the role Huawei could play in the sector despite its fierce competition, but the path to success was far more difficult than he imagined.
“Is this technically feasible? Have you worked out a solution for the color cast? Where are the component selections and test results for this version? How about the cost comparison?” As Zhai asked a series of questions during one of the team’s many meetings, the atmosphere grew heavier. Earlier, ignoring phone calls, he had locked himself in a meeting room at Huawei’s Hangzhou Research Center, surrounded by experts from different fields.
The meeting room, nicknamed “the SuperColor Room,” was the breeding ground for the key technologies that now make up Huawei’s smart cameras. It was where discussions between color vision experts and business experts from Huawei’s 2012 Laboratories took place.
There was a lot of debate about which direction to pursue for SDC research: “Dual-Lens” or “SuperColor.” And it was Zhai who had to make the final decision.
One of the main drawbacks of using traditional cameras for surveillance is that they cannot deliver clear images in low-light conditions, and therefore fail to meet the requirements of many practical situations. To improve low-light image quality, the industry typically adopts one of two solutions.
Most traditional cameras use white light illuminators to increase visibility and improve image quality, but white light often causes light pollution, and the light can be distracting and even dangerous for drivers.
Elsewhere, some cameras use invisible infrared illuminators to deliver black and white images, but the lack of color makes accurately recognizing objects in detail very difficult.
To deliver optimal image quality even in low-light conditions, Zhai and his team came up with two solutions — Dual-Lens and SuperColor — but they were unsure which way to go.
Dual-Lens technology delivers images using a mechanism that is similar to the way human eyes work, and it is an excellent solution for imaging in low-light conditions. Meanwhile, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, SuperColor technology synthesizes clear black and white images, captured using infrared, with color images illuminated by visible light, to produce clear, sharp, full-color images.
After a lot of consideration, along with multiple evaluations by experts from 2012 Laboratories, Zhai finally decided on SuperColor, but it was not an easy choice.
“Dual-Lens technology can provide detailed images, but it increases production costs with its customized lens,” says Zhai. “Each camera also needs to be calibrated. The higher the resolution, the more difficult the calibration, and this would likely have hindered long-term product development.”
In August 2019, Huawei debuted its SuperColor camera line.
SuperColor cameras rely on Huawei-developed technologies such as intelligent color integration, intelligent exposure, and invisible light compensation, to provide 24/7 HD video surveillance.
“Illuminators are still needed for the SuperColor cameras to provide nighttime surveillance, yet we managed to realize invisible light compensation without creating any light pollution,” Zhai says. “In addition, the patented intelligent exposure algorithm enables the cameras to automatically detect object exposure and make target settings to provide optimal video images.”
It takes a lot of effort to embed new technologies into products. Huawei’s SuperColor cameras use multi-frame progressive exposure to provide millisecond exposure for color images, which requires extremely accurate exposure-control algorithms. In addition, to prevent stripe interference, a camera’s exposure must match its optical filter.
The cameras process data at twice the speed of Starlight cameras; they then use the data to identify multitudes of light sources and apply inter-frame motion prediction technology to synthesize multi-spectral images and deliver HD images.
To provide cameras capable of all-day surveillance without light pollution in various scenarios, including low-light and backlit conditions, the R&D team needed to conduct repeated site tests. “There are many different kinds of vehicle lights and street lights,” says Zhai. “Their wavelength varies depending on the light type, some of which can even cover wavelengths from 400 to over 3000 nm. Therefore, the camera needs to identify the light source first to prevent light interference.”
Consisting mainly of engineers, the team was determined to improve product quality and the arduous cycle of repeated tests and optimizations did not affect their enthusiasm — they simply helped each other through any difficulties.
“As well as a sense of accomplishment, developing new products — more importantly — gives us a sense of belonging,” says Zhai.
At the 2019 Huawei Intelligent Video & Data Analytics Business Strategies Launch Event on August 8, 2019, Huawei shook up the entire intelligent video surveillance industry by announcing that it was increasing the warranty period of its cameras from one year to three years, beating the previous longest warranty period of two years. The decision to implement a three-year warranty period represents Huawei’s commitment to the industry; it is also a demonstration of Zhai’s confidence.
As the gatekeeper of Huawei’s smart cameras, Zhai oversees every aspect of camera R&D, including system architecture, algorithms, and components. He even becomes a fault-tester during component selection to further optimize product quality.
Commercial cameras require high pressure and temperature tests before delivery. To provide all-day surveillance, SuperColor cameras sit in an enclosed housing, which requires higher component quality and rigorous environmental tests.
“For the optical filters alone, we tested dozens of varieties from different batches. It’s hard to ensure consistent product quality, even from the best vendors. Therefore, we have extremely high requirements for vendors providing nanoscale optical filters. They are all frustrated by our pickiness,” Zhai says, with a hint of a smile on his face. “Industrial standards require a warranty period of ten years. For commercial products, we also endeavor to ensure extraordinary quality. To achieve this, every component of the SuperColor cameras is carefully selected.”
To test the SuperColor cameras’ lightning protection capabilities, Huawei built a lightning test field in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. On rainy days, a small rocket was launched to manually trigger lightning for the test; a wire would then be used to connect several thousand volts of lightning to the camera.
These high requirements for quality and rigorous tests ensure that Huawei SuperColor cameras work properly even in extreme conditions. For example, the cameras can work in extremely high and low temperatures, ranging from –40°C to +60°C, and they support 6 kV surge protection and have an IP67 rating (for their waterproof and dustproof capabilities).
High requirements regarding hardware quality often extend a product’s R&D period. Conversely, the development method of the SuperColor cameras, featuring the decoupling of software from hardware, has actually accelerated their launch.
Huawei SuperColor cameras are SDCs. An SDC needs to meet three requirements: high quality AI chips, an open-ended SDC OS, and a future-proof ecosystem and algorithms.
“As simple a concept as software defined seems to be, this technical threshold is out of reach for most vendors,” Zhai says. “A lightweight SDC OS, developed based on container technology, with carefully curated code, is embedded in the camera to realize true decoupling of software from hardware.”
Software-hardware decoupling is a growing trend, and cloud computing is a typical use case. This development method grants Huawei smart cameras two modes of development — software defined and hardware centered — to deliver outstanding products at an accelerated pace.
“Most importantly, with this feature, if any error occurs in a third-party application or algorithm, the security and stability of the SDC as well as its own applications and algorithms will not be affected.”
Because of this development method, innovation is embedded in Huawei, with software updates appearing to be seemingly limitless.
Zhai says that his team is now considering dual operating systems for Huawei’s next generation of smart cameras. He believes that, like each Huawei employee, the aspiration to usher in a new era for this industry drives the SuperColor camera R&D team.