Two questions I am often asked are “What type of forensic video analysis system should I buy?” and “I have “X” system and I’m really comfortable with it, should I get another one or is there something better out there?”. I’ve answered this enough times that I figured I’d actually put it down in a blog post. As you’ll see, my goal in this post isn’t to recommend one specific system over another, but to present some things for you to consider when looking to acquire a new system.
Types of Systems
I used the term “forensic video analysis system” above because that is usually how it is phrased to me. I tend to break systems into several categories:
- Non-linear editor based systems/applications
- Examples of this type would be Avid, Final Cut, Premiere, etc.
- Great for putting together timelines, presentations, etc.
- Can often accept a wide variety of formats for import, but will rarely be able to directly import native video files from digital video recorders (DVRs).
- Can support capturing of uncompressed analog video through a capture device, but have usually limited capabilities for other types of acquisitions such as screen capture.
- Without additional plug-ins (such as dTective or Intergraph) or a lot of additional effort, enhancement capabilities are often limited to the same types of enhancements that a video editor might perform (brightness, contrast, etc.) as opposed to forensic video/image analysis techniques such as frame averaging.
- Video/image enhancement systems/applications
- Examples of this type would be Amped Five, ClearID, VideoFOCUS Pro, Star Witness, etc.
- Great for clarifying individual files with various techniques, many of which are specific to forensic video/image analysis.
- Usually have built in reporting/documentation designed for forensic use.
- Depending on the system, may be able to directly import some native export video files from DVRs.
- May have some limited non-linear editor capabilities depending on the platform, but won’t be as flexible in combining multiple clips, synchronizing video/audio, etc. as a traditional non-linear based system.
- May have analog capture capabilities, but likely not as advanced as the non-linear based systems.
- Acquisition systems/applications
- Examples of this type would be DVR Examiner, Omnivore, Star Witness FreezeFrame, VideoFOCUS Source, etc.
- Great for acquiring the video evidence to be used with the other two types of systems/applications.
- As they are designed for acquisition only, they usually will have little to no processing/clarification capabilities on their own.
With those descriptions and features in mind, let’s look at some of the questions I might ask someone who presents this question to me:
What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
This is probably the most important question. If you don’t put together timelines, synchronize sources, video based presentations, etc. then a non-linear editor based system is probably not for you. Likewise, if you work for a District Attorney’s office and you don’t really do much in the way of enhancement or analysis, but instead spend your time compiling video from 4 different robberies and putting them into a video sequence with transitions and title screens, then a video enhancement system/application without good non-linear capabilities will likely not meet your needs.
If your time is split between those types of duties, then the main two types of system can work well in conjunction. If you already own a non-linear based system, consider purchasing a video enhancement system, or vice-versa. That will allow you to process or clarify video in the enhancement system and then export it to a format that the non-linear based system will be able to easily work with for the timeline portion of your analysis.
What types/sources of evidence do you receive regularly?
When I worked at a prior agency, I was fortunate enough to have 3 different non-linear based systems on my desk. I was often asked which I preferred to use and my response was always “whichever allows me to import my source evidence in the cleanest and fastest way possible”. I had a system on my desk that I felt was the easiest to use from a non-linear editor based perspective, but if it took me significantly longer to import the original evidence just to be able use THAT system, I wasn’t being efficient. The point is, take a look at the type of evidence you receive on a regular basis and find a system that will work for that workflow. Most systems have some sort of a trial available, or work with a neighboring analyst to try out a system you don’t have access to.
What system(s) do you currently have and what is your comfort level with them?
If you already have an existing system, you might be inclined to acquire another as your workload increases. Over the years, I have always preferred to acquire a different system that expanded my capabilities over acquiring the same system simply because I was comfortable with it. The truth is, most non-linear based systems have pretty much the same functions, although they may operate slightly differently or might be in a different menu. But if getting that different system allows you to easily import files that you couldn’t previously, the overall time saved will more than justify the learning curve. In addition, I’ve found that the more systems you’ve experienced, the shorter the learning curve is each time you try a new one. So don’t be afraid to try something new. You won’t lose any existing capabilities – your old trusted system is still on your desk for you to fall back to.
What do you WISH you could do with your current system, and what do you WISH your current system did [better/faster/etc.]?
Maybe it can. If you haven’t already, talk to the vendor and see what they say. Maybe it is a feature they can add. As a software developer, we love to hear feedback from our users on what they’d like to see. We can’t make everything happen, but I can tell you that most vendors try to accommodate wherever possible. If you want to see a feature included, chances are you aren’t the only one. In addition, the feature may already be there but not readily apparent, but they might be able to point you in the right direction or suggest some training on how to accomplish it with your existing system.
Otherwise, I would recommend trying out real world files on different systems (either through evaluation versions or coordinating with a trusted neighboring colleague). You may find that some files import easily into a new system whereas your existing system had to transcode or screen capture them. In terms of expanding your enhancement capabilities, definitely try it out first. Sometimes one system may be marginally better than the next, but the reality is that sometimes the video we receive is beyond hope, and spending more money on a new system is still not going to get that license plate.
In some situations, maybe you don’t need a whole new system. Consider adding specialty or acquisition systems/applications to extend your capabilities in areas such as DVR recovery, screen capture, etc. These types of applications generally don’t require a whole new stand-alone system as they usually can be installed on any standard hardware that meets the system requirements. This lowers the overall cost and can simplify your workflow. If you’re planning on installing additional software to purpose built hardware for another analysis system, you may want to verify with the vendor to ensure it will work properly.
What is your budget?
I saved this question for last because in my opinion it is the least important. If you have researched the other questions I’ve raised and come to a conclusion that you need “X” system, then you need “X” system. Getting “Y” system because it is less expensive is an option, but it becomes a math problem based on whether the additional money saved is worth it. Certainly if “Y” system enhances your capabilities and/or efficiency significantly, then the money may be well spent even if you can’t get your dream “X” system. However, if “Y” is only a minimal step above what you have now, you might be better served saving the money and continuing to work to acquire the system that truly meets your needs.
I hope this has helped you consider your options when looking for a “forensic video analysis system”. Whether you are a one person shop or a forensic unit with 20 analysts, a bit of planning in this area can ensure you have systems and training that address as many examination scenarios as possible. As always, if you have questions, feel free to reach out!
The product and/or company names used in this post are property of their respective owners and were used for reference purposes only.