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BLOG: A camera in a pen and a kiosk in an iPad

Mark Gibbs | July 20, 2012
We start this week with stealthy, James Bondish stuff.

We start this week with stealthy, James Bondish stuff: Let's say you're at a trade show and want to record your conversations as you pose as a prospect to the competition, or maybe you want to surreptitiously record the life-sucking, brain-damaging ennui of a staff meeting so you can show your better half what life is like at the coal face.

Suitable gear for making such a recording used to be either very expensive or very much "cobbled together." Not so on either account for the Swann HD Pencam. This is, as you might guess, an HD video camera (with audio) hidden inside a pen (it can also take stills). Oh, and it is also a working ballpoint and it looks pretty good, too.

Shooting in 1280 by 720 AVI video and 1600 by 1200 JPG formats, the Pencam can record for up to 45 minutes powered by its internal rechargeable battery. You have to add a Micro SD card (16GB is the maximum supported capacity). When you unscrew the top of the pen the SD card slot is revealed on top of a USB connector. There's also a switch at the base of the USB connector to change from video to still image mode.

When you plug the Pencam into your computer it is seen as a generic USB storage device. As shipped, the Pencam defaults to some date and time in 1980. Swann provides a Windows utility to set the date and time but under OS X you have to create a file with the current date and time called time.txt in the root of the SD card then start the Pencam. The file is read, the internal clock updated, and the file deleted. Neat but inelegant.

The camera lens is hidden in a discreet pinhole above the pen's clip so you can quite easily, should you be of the pocket protector persuasion, have the Pencam nonchalantly pointing at the scene before you.

That said, the status of the device (standby or recording) is indicated by a blue and yellow LED on the opposite side of the pen from the camera pinhole, so to be truly stealthy you'll need a small square of electrical tape or similar to really hide your nefariousness unless you normally have blinking lights on your person. Covering the LED will, however, make the status of the Pencam a matter of guesswork.

The operating instructions that come with the device say that to turn the Pencam on you have to depress the button on the top of the pen for three seconds. On the unit I received if you should press the button for three seconds, the device will lock up showing the expected standby light, but when you press the button again to start recording or take a picture, it will do nothing. I found that a simple press and immediate release was what was required, not a three-second press.


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