20 years of ARTPEC – the secret behind Axis cameras

Now entering its twentieth year, the ARTPEC chip is a vital component of an Axis camera. It provides the basis for essential product capabilities such as image quality, analytics features and coding performance. It is essentially the “secret” behind the company’s highly advanced network cameras.

Stefan Lundberg, Senior Expert Engineer, Technologies at Axis Communications, takes a look at the history of the ARTPEC chip.

During the designing process of each ARTPEC generation, there has always been a recurring task that needed addressing, because there is a trade between performance and features versus cost and power consumption. This is an important start of the chip design process, where each chip generation not only has an increased pixel throughput but also improved or additional critical features. With each new set of ARTPEC chips, the number of transistors almost doubled, but thanks to Moore’s law, the size, power consumption of and cost have almost stayed the same.

A revolutionary chip

“Our ARTPEC chips were a small revolution – for us and our industry. While we might not have invented the wheel, we did revolutionise the way video is transferred, adding a lot of flexibility and opportunities for novel applications. The invention of ARTPEC enabled us to develop completely new technologies, such as the Forensic Wide Dynamic Range (WDR), powerful edge analytics and Zipstream data compression technology,” said Stefan.

The invention of ARTPEC enabled us to develop completely new technologies

These technologies could not have been brought to market without the chip but this didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of many achievements over time that are the cornerstones in our ARTPEC journey – small turning points that slowly changed the industry.

For example, with ARTPEC-1 it was possible to create the first cost-efficient network camera product with full video performance. With ARTPEC-3 we managed to deliver high-quality video with larger resolution than the existing analogue video cameras. With ARTPEC-5 we continued to improve our dual exposure WDR solution and the result was called Forensic Capture – a solution that was very different from competitors as it created an image that prioritised details and visibility over a nice looking video. This method has now become a standard in the industry and for the first time, it was possible to place cameras freely even in difficult light situations like storefronts with large glass areas receiving direct sunlight. But what really made the difference with ARTPEC-5 was the invention of the smart video encoder named Zipstream that reduced the cost of storage in the system.

The first chip

ARTPEC was not used in the world’s first network camera, Neteye 200, but after it was completed we realised that the available off-the-shelf chips couldn’t provide us with the level of performance our cameras needed. That was what kicked off the development of our first ARTPEC chip. We started working on it in late autumn 1996 and released the first product, AXIS 2100, at Comdex in November 1999.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but ARTPEC was the core element that enabled us to expand our offering with small resources from a few products to a complete portfolio that later would revolutionise the surveillance industry,” states Stefan.

Of course, revolutions don’t happen overnight. It was a process. Each generation of chips had its own main goal that was addressed during the development and we had to constantly reinvent the way to work since with each generation the complexity grew.

“One key factor that helped us get where we are today is our way of tackling the innovation process. The core technologies department is organised into independent groups that all focus on problems and improvements in several fields. We gave them the freedom to explore and focus on the areas they thought would have the biggest potential in the future. The only responsibility the teams had was to deliver something for the next ARTPEC generation. Finding inspiration from other markets and approaching certain issues together solved a lot of problems in our industry,” explains Stefan.

ARTPEC cornerstones

Thanks to ARTPEC-1’s dedicated image and compression hardware we could stream video directly from the camera to a remote location using the Internet without the need for a massive amount of equipment. We simply required users to point the web browser to the embedded webserver in the camera and used standard protocols from the IT-industry to transfer the video – that was revolutionary since the Internet was new and other video transfer solutions used dedicated video cables instead.

AXIS 2100, the first network cameras that used ARTPEC-1, was also revolutionary with its internal firmware that was based on a completely new embedded operation system, which is today known as embedded Linux. To enable fast and efficient development of a portfolio of products we chose to scrap the proprietary RTOS (Real-Time Operating System) and use μClinux that we believed was right for Axis to grow with. In fact, AXIS 2100 was the first mass-produced product in the world that used embedded Linux. Looking back, we couldn’t have made a better decision – even though it required a lot of extra work to implement all the pieces, that are now common standard and expected, like a flash-based file system we could grow together with Linux.

ARTPEC-2, which was launched in 2003, added much more performance, but we also started to experiment with more efficient video encoding called MPEG.

ARTPEC-3 was invented four years later. It was the chip that really moved the industry into IP-video with best in class throughput and compact footprint. For the first time, we now managed to fit the best video encoder for its time (H.264/AVC) together with the rest of the system into one SoC (System-on-chip) that could deliver high-quality HDTV.

In 2011 we were ready to launch ARTPEC-4, with which we focused on solving two remaining issues with digital cameras at that time: Limited dynamic range and light sensitivity. We called the solution Lightfinder and released the first progressive scanned camera that outperformed existing analogue interlaced surveillance cameras at that time. With ARTPEC-4 we also managed to develop a new wide dynamic range (WDR) solution that worked well and was widely asked for. We continued to improve this specific feature in 2013 with ARTPEC-5 in the form of Forensic Capture. Our sixth generation of ARTPEC was released in 2017. While adding a new level of security and it also paved the way for our latest member in the ARTPEC family, that was developed only two years later: ARTPEC-7.

ARTPEC today

Today the ARTPEC chip is in its seventh generation and much more sophisticated, allowing for sharper images and more precise colours. With our seventh generation of chips, it was possible to introduce some significant enhancements. One of them was Lightfinder 2.0 that was released earlier this year. With the new chip, Lightfinder 2.0 can deliver more realistic and saturated colours even in extremely low lighting. Plus the images, even those of moving objects, are sharper even during low light conditions. Besides this improved light sensitivity, ARTPEC-7 also enhanced WDR to capture movements better and with clearer, more detailed images while also reducing the risk of WDR-artifacts. For cameras with IR illumination, the latest chip will extend the range of illumination thanks to increased light sensitivity.

“The best way to illustrate 20 years of progress is to directly compare the development between the very first ARTPEC chip and our latest ARTPEC-7.”, states Stefan, “While the main flow of pixels between sensors and network is the same for both types, ARTPEC-1 only supported the image delivery and offered no flexibility. Putting their differences in context this means, ARTPEC-7 has over 50 times the performance of the first chips while still maintaining the same size and price.”

The future of ARTPEC

“Looking at the development we made, I can say that the features that have evolved the most over this process are the image quality, broadening the image usability. It’s a game-changer for the surveillance industry as it allows to use this technology in various types of situations without having video-issues.”, says Stefan.