Star Casino: Birthplace of Digital Video Surveillance

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Consultant Vlado Damjanovski with the Dallmeier Pit-Cam system at Star Casino
Consultant Vlado Damjanovski with the Dallmeier Pit-Cam system at Star Casino

It’s been 2 decades since the first IP surveillance systems were installed in Australia, first at Crown Casino in Melbourne and a year later at Star Casino in Sydney. These were basic solutions compared to the current generations of digital CCTV technology but even the first generations highlighted the power and capability of digital video and represent the birthplace of digital video surveillance in Australia.

EXACTLY 20 years ago, in 1997 I was consultant on my first large-scale digital CCTV project for Star Casino in Sydney, a site which at that time was called Sydney Harbour Casino. One of the earliest digital CCTV systems in the world of this size, it comprised 50 DVRs and more than 200 cameras. The only similar solution of this type I’m aware of was completed just one year earlier at Crown Casino in Melbourne. So, in a way, this is an anniversary for the whole industry.

The project was the so-called Pit-Camera System (also known as ‘Pit-Cam’) developed for Star Casino in Sydney. The idea of this project was to have gaming tables disputes resolved on the spot, quickly, without waiting for the analogue matrix switcher to search for the VHS recorders and find the recorded footage to clear a gaming incident. Using digital recording in 1997 was pioneering. Many CCTV experts of the time did not believe that digital recording quality could be equal to or better than VHS, let alone S-VHS resolution (400TVL). 

I should also point out that the main surveillance system was handled by the legendary MAX-1000 analogue matrix switcher, controlling more than 1000 VCRs with their patented VCR management via the wired LED remote control. But this was still analogue VHS recording. Casino operators would usually spend 8 hours per day in just replacing video tapes in machines. The digital recorders, however, even in their infancy, were offering immediate and quick access to the recorded footage, without loss of recording during the playback. This was not possible with analogue VCRs at the time.

My choice, as consultant to the Star casino were Dallmeier DVRs, which were distributed locally by C.R. Kennedy (a company I didn’t even know then) under the name of Grundig. They proved to offer everything my client wanted and more. One of the most impressive things with the Dallmeier choice was not only the image quality (offering >400 TVL) but also their engineering ability to modify the control and navigation of the playback to the satisfaction of the end user was outstanding. 

Although mouse and touch-screen controls were known at that time and the Crown Casino system was using the touch-screen, my client wasn't happy with such a control. Using a mouse was not as natural to them, mouse pointer being too small, and touch-screen control was not as fluent as today - touch sensitive areas on the screen being quite large and not as precise. 

So, upon my suggestion to use a joystick control for playback - they agreed. I designed a simple panel with buttons representing 8 gaming tables, a joystick for playback, reverse playback, fast rewind and fast forward, and a quad screen button to toggle between quad view of 4 gaming tables. The problem was - would the DVR manufacturer be able to provide such hardware control to their DVRs? To my surprise, Dallmeier engineers not only agreed, but supplied a prototype within two weeks, with a floppy diskette software update which worked immediately. 

This was exactly the solution my client wanted. With only 2 clicks - one for camera selection and one for playback in reverse (from the latest moment in time, immediately after the incident) - the casino operators were able to see the quickest possible playbacks of any dispute - in just one second, for any camera. Such a speed of selecting a camera and playing back an incident instantly was unheard of when using VCRs.

Another novelty that I introduced in this project was that the cameras used at the gaming tables were tilted by 90 degrees so that as they were installed in the ‘lollypops’ on the corner of the gaming tables, they were seeing the gaming tables vertically. When shown on the analogue monitors, they appeared to the dealer’s manager as if they are standing at the dealer’s position, making it much easier to see what was happening in case of a dispute. This gave a better clarity to the cards and money placed on the table and also satisfied the privacy requirement to not see the faces of the patrons, but only their hands and the table. 

The system was installed and worked as predicted. The client was very happy with the results, as it cleared many disputes on the spot, and potential scammers were discouraged, thus reducing casino losses. The Pit-Cam system was in service for quite a few years. In fact, it only came to be replaced when the digital technology progressed so much that replacement hard drives were no longer available on the market. Even Burswood casino, many year later, simulated the simplicity of Pit-Cam system control by developing software control keyboard simulating the originally designed physical keyboard for Star Casino.

Today, in 2017, it is almost impossible to see a new solution, or even an upgrade to an old CCTV system, being designed without digital IP technology. Something that only 20 years ago was unheard of, today is just standard - how things have changed!

I am very proud of this anniversary milestone, not only because it is a part of my career, but part of the history of the CCTV industry in general. With this history in mind, I would like to hear from colleagues who are aware of, or who were involved with digital CCTV projects earlier than 1996/7 that were of a similar or larger size. With a glass of Australian red, I celebrate this anniversary and salute all my colleagues reading this article. Let’s not forget the fascinating history of the video surveillance industry! ♦

Vlado Damjanovski is a CCTV specialist, consultant and managing director of ViDi Labs. He is the author of CCTV, the world's best-selling and most authoritative video surveillance text book.