In 1993 a group of academics from Essex University had the idea to spin-off a company based on their tele-robotic vision research (Malcolm Lear, Martin Colley, Paul Chernett and Vic Callaghan). They had been working on a security robot that could act as a type of “night watchman” on duty in unmanned premises, such as supermarkets. The idea was that if an alarm was triggered, the first response would be sending a tele-operated robot to investigate, before people (police, company personnel etc) were summoned. AI was used in various levels from image encoding through to overcoming the unreliable network connections. There is a ‘YouTube’ video of the early (1993) prototype of this tele-operated robot. The team quickly realised that the most important part of the system was the network controlled camera, and they proposed that this part was separated and turned into a commercial product; a network camera called superVisor. You need to remember this work was taking place before the advent of webcams so, at this point of time, the idea of a standalone network camera was revolutionary and the world was skeptical about this (not least, about flooding computer networks with video data which, in those days, had a top capacity of around 10M bits – an order of magnitude less than many current home network connections!). The technical innovation of the final product concerned the creation of a unique computing architecture that integrated video, intelligent-building technology and novel video coding and analysis algorithms producing a smart security system with exceptional low network loading. It took about 4 years between first approaching the University with this idea and a company being set up; in between there were attempts by the University to license the technology to existing companies before somewhat reluctantly agreeing, to license the technology to the academics that invented the system, who then got a USA based business angel to fund the venture and incorporated the company on the 14th March 1997 (and formally received a signed licensing agreement from the University on the 1st October 1997).
Despite the company having a global distributor (ClearView Communications), selling significant quantities of their systems to a global market including customers such as GCHQ in the UK, the Hoover Dam in the USA, a number of factors conspired to limit the company’s success which eventually ceased trading in 2010. Foremost in the problems were the delays in getting an agreement with the University, which allowed other competitors, such as Axis, to emerge. A second barrier was the conservatism and lack of computer skills in the security-camera market (at the time, all security cameras used wired video). An article in The East Anglian Daily Times (Security system gives us a view of the future) dated 3rd February 1999 gives an interesting insight to the then newly formed company together with the original sales brochure of the superVisor product.