Oracle Surveillance looks up

Woodlawn company positions growth of its hidden gear


April 04, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

It's a bizarre feeling to watch yourself on a big television screen when you can't spot the camera that's capturing the image.

But that's precisely the feeling the two top officers of Woodlawn's Oracle Surveillance Systems Ltd. hope to instill. Having customers try to ferret out the location of the company's tiny, hidden camera is an illustration of its talents and an exercise that owners Michael Rogers and Alexander Elbert love.

So far, business has been good. But the two hope to take the company a long way, an objective that may demand strategic partners or outside investors.

"Right now, we're OK," said Rogers, the company founder and president, who formerly was a new-product-development manager in the banking industry. "But where we want to go -- our marketing plan -- demands that we get to the next point, finding investors or licensing" Oracle's self-developed technology.

Oracle Surveillance chiefly designs, makes and installs video surveillance systems -- essentially spy gear aimed primarily at commercial markets. It does some work for the government, and looks to do more, though most of its contracts have been for Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T Corp., CSX Corp. and Black & Decker Corp. And now it's landing some business from insurance companies that hope to discover if an accident victim is exaggerating the severity of some injuries.

Find the camera, Rogers and Elbert exhort.

The TV image is of your back, so you know the camera's behind you. But in the corner where it seems the picture is being transmitted from, there's just a beat-up clock radio, displaying the time in big, red numbers.

The camera has to be in the radio.

"Congratulations," says Elbert, a former technician in the Soviet navy and now vice president of manufacturing and chief technologist.

A tiny camera is behind the red-tinted plastic panel that covers the face of the functioning clock radio. If it weren't for the TV image, however, you'd never know you were being watched.

Like most other firms in its field, Oracle takes off-the-shelf equipment -- such as cameras, videotape recorders and electronic panels -- and weaves it into surveillance systems customized for clients.

Two capabilities may set Oracle apart, however. First, the 10-year-old company has an on-staff private investigator, allowing it to also conduct surveillance for commercial customers as well as providing the equipment. The company does not conduct domestic investigations.

Second, and more important, the firm runs its own research and development, designing some of its equipment. While it now sells that equipment directly to customers, it hopes to license it to a manufacturer with the financial firepower to mass-market Oracle's wares.

Rogers said Oracle had sales of roughly $500,000 in 1998 and spent $100,000 on R&D projects. The investment seems to be paying off: Oracle is on a pace for $1 million in sales this year and, at worst, should notch $750,000 in revenues.

Oracle may be in the right business at the right time. The closed-circuit television, or CCTV, "segment is one of the best-growing segments of the security market," said Scott Goldfine, a senior editor for Security Sales magazine in Torrance, Calif. Industry sales in 1997 reached $1.44 billion.

Oracle has focused a lot of its research and development spending on the "activity" surveillance that lets a company keep watch over one or more of its offices, warehouses or plants -- usually from a single, remote location.

Oracle has designed a phone-book-size box, trademarked as its "Off-Site SuperVision" live video transmission system, with a built-in modem and can transmit or receive video images from up to eight cameras over telephone lines. It's cheap to use, because the images can be viewed on a standard television, instead of on a computer monitor. What's more, the box lets the user perform one additional function, such as turning on the lights at a factory if something suspicious appears on the screen.

The system's trade-off is that the images aren't "full-frame" video, meaning they're not good enough for identification purposes. But activity surveillance is used by a company only to make sure things are OK at its distant facilities.

Each box sells for about $1,800, a price that would drop dramatically if they were built in high volumes, Rogers said.

It's Oracle's "identification" video equipment that has you looking around the room for Q, the eccentric, brilliant scientist who developed all the quirky weapons for cinema secret agent James Bond.

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