Holiday 2012: Surveillance Toys

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You can’t go anywhere these days without your every movement being caught on a surveillance video. Gas stations, department stores, banks—everyone has their electronic eye on you at some point. While most of the surveillance out there is greatly beneficial to law enforcement, some surveillance video is of a more personal nature. The recently reduced cost of producing and mass-marketing these items has led to a boom in personal surveillance equipment sales.



Scenarios in which you would want your own personal electronic eye would be in home surveillance (especially for rental properties), monitoring your loved one’s safety and welfare and for private detective agencies. The devices themselves range from Teddy-Bear cameras (commonly known as NannyCams) to baseball caps with cameras mounted in the bill, to stealth gyro-balanced helicopters with their own onboard video cameras.

So, when you’re in a situation where you need to record something, but whipping out your cell-phone camera isn’t always the most convenient action to take, consider these innovative alternatives. Here's a handy tip before you begin, though. It's best to check the laws in your state concerning surveillance (in some states, even covert audio recording is prohibited), especially if you're thinking of using footage in a court of law, and always use common sense and courtesy when recording.

But first, a glossary:

  • CCD – charged couple device. The internal circuitry of most personal surveillance cameras. Unless specifically stated, these cameras do not record in color.
  • Lines of Resolution – also known as TVL (TV lines). The higher the number, the better the quality
  • Pixel resolution – usually denoted buy a high/low number, like 640 x 480. Again, higher numbers mean better quality. 640 x 480 is standard VGA – what most computer screens natively output.
  • Storage – cameras have to record to something. In some cases, storage is not on the camera – a separate component must be used to keep recorded video. If a unit can hold a storage card, you can save video to the card. If a camera does not have internal storage, you have to run wires from the camera to a video source (like a DVR, VCR or computer).
  • Timestamp – the process of embedding the time and/or date on video for reference when playing it back.

Clothing Cams

You’re at your kid’s game, keeping the umpires and referees honest. If they see you filming them, they’re going to be suspicious. But if you’re wearing a camera they can’t see, well, someone could end up being an Internet superstar before the game is over. With the exception of the Smiley Face badge, the following camera systems all require an external DVR to make them completely portable, otherwise, your cover can be blown when someone sees the wires going from your baseball cap to a surveillance van.

For junior’s game, consider the Bolide Color Baseball Cap Hidden Camera. With a ¼” color CCD (charged couple device) camera and 380 lines of resolution, the Bolide Baseball Cap Hidden Camera is about as inconspicuous as you can get. It includes a built-in power supply and battery pack, and features standard RCA connection to a TV or VCR/DVR. Since there is no internal storage, you may want to pair it with a unit like the AVR Pocket Digital Motion Detection A/V Recorder.

Not a hat-wearing kind of detective, or trying to film in a situation in which wearing a hat would make you stand out? Try the Bolide Technology Group BC1025 Color Jacket Hidden Camera. This wearable surveillance system also features a ¼” color CCD and 380 lines of resolution, and comes with a built-in power supply and battery pack. It also could benefit from the AVR Pocket Digital Motion Detection A/V Recorder.

The Bolide Technology Group BC1023 Color Neck Tie Hidden Camera may seem like a party favor, but it includes the same features as the baseball cap and jacket—a ¼” CCD camera with 380 lines of resolution and a built-in power supply and battery pack. Again, since there is no internal memory to record, consider pairing it with the AVR Pocket Digital Motion Detection A/V Recorder.

Another inconspicuous camera system is the Bolide Technology Group BC1026 Color Backpack Hidden Camera. Hidden in this generic-looking backpack is a ¼” CCD with 380 lines of resolution and a built-in power supply and battery pack. But one advantage to this system is that if you decide on purchasing the AVR Pocket Digital Motion Detection A/V Recorder, you could easily stow it in the backpack.

Although this item does scream “Look at me! I’m up to something!”, the Avangard Optics Smiley Face Button Camera does the job of covertly recording video at up to 720 x 480 pixels (with audio)  and captures still images at 2048 x 1536 pixels. It includes a timestamp for videos and stills, and supports a microSD card for up to 16GB of storage. This Smiley Face badge also works as a webcam via a USB connection. The lithium-ion battery supports up to 2 hours of continuous operation.

Household Item Cams

Personal property surveillance runs the gauntlet from recording the frivolous to the serious. Whether keeping an eye on what the help is lifting from the silverware drawer, to keeping tabs on how your nanny or care worker is treating your family, inconspicuously hiding a camera in the room is getting harder to do.

The Bolide Technology Group BC1095 Color Teddy Bear Hidden Camera is a simple and effective way to watch what happens in your child’s room when you can’t be there yourself. It contains a ¼” CCD camera, which records at 512 x 492 resolution and includes an RCA output. It needs a power supply, or it can be operated with an optional battery pack (sold separately). To record to video, it also needs to be hardwired to a video source.  The Bolide Technology Group BL2011C Color Wireless Teddy Bear Hidden Camera performs the same functions, but contains a 2.4 GHz wireless transmitter with a 700’ range, so no wires are showing. You could also stay inconspicuous in your kid’s room with the Bolide Technology Group BL1238C Wireless Color Portable Boom Box Hidden Camera. Placed in the confines of a harmless looking fully functional portable stereo system, it features the same ¼” CCD with 380 lines of resolution. Wireless functionality eliminates the cords here, too.

For even less chance of discovery, the Bolide Technology Group Self Recording SONY Radio Clock Hidden Spy Camera with DVR offers even more options and higher recording specs. The Sony CCD records 720 x 480 or 320 x 240 video at 30 fps, and includes scheduled or motion-triggered timestamped recording. It includes a USB SD card reader for an additional 16GB of storage. The Sony clock is fully functional for even better cover.

Another seemingly harmless household item that can also be used to record video is the Bolide Technology Group BL1208C Wireless Color Tissue Box Hidden Camera, which contains a ¼” CCD with 380 lines of resolution and 514 x 492 resolution recording. To keep your covert actions covert, this also features a 2.4 GHz wireless transmitter and a 700’ range. Looking for something even less conspicuous and more common in the house? Gezund-hide! How about the Bolide Technology Group BL1218C Color Wireless Book Hidden Camera?  It includes the same specs as the Tissue Box (except for the 420-450 lines of resolution which this camera has) and the wireless functions help hide the true nature of this item.

Personal Item Cams

Sometimes you want your surveillance a little more, let’s say, personal than a large room venue. Sometimes recording has to get up close and personal. For those times, you should look into these portable and personal surveillance items.

The Avangard Optics Car Alarm Remote Spy Camera records video in the AVI format at 720 x 480 resolution. It can store up to 100 minutes of video and almost 120,000 photos. Video and still images are transferred to a PC via USB and the 280mAh battery supports 1.5 hours of continuous operation. Would anyone suspect that you were filming them by aiming your car remote at them?

Although smoking is very unhealthy, this pack of cigarettes may actually be beneficial to you. The Bolide Technology Group Self Recording Cigarette Pack Hidden Camera features a camera hidden in a cigarette pack, but it also includes a built-in DVR that can record up to 8 hours of video at 480 lines, with a minimum illumination of 1.0 lux. The Sony CCD sensor recorded video can be played on any 3GP compatible cell phone or PDA, and the included USB cable handles charging and data transfer.

Work Cams

Not everyone you work with is as honest as you. Employers lose millions every year to employee theft and lack of productivity. Sometimes you need a little more than gossip to tell you what’s really going on with your employees. These cameras will help keep things above line at work.

The Mace CAM-81C Color Smoke Detector Camera includes a 3.6mm lens and operates on 12VDC power. It operates in very low light (1 Lux) and offers 420 lines of resolution on its ¼” Color CCD. This is not a functioning smoke alarm, so unless you want to catch video of a raging fire, please remember to properly install a real smoke alarm on your property. You may also want to consider the Mace Covert Fire Sprinkler Camera, which features a sharper 1/3” color Sony CCD with 550 lines of resolution, capable of 768 x 494 pixel resolution. It can be mounted flush with the ceiling for a discreet way to film your business operations. This is not a functioning sprinkler.

Looking to keep an eye on people who keep their eyes on the clock all day? It’s a lot easier with the Sperry West Spyder Industrial Wall Clock Wireless Covert Color Camera. This fully functional wall clock features a more advanced 3.7mm lens, capable of 520 lines of resolution. It also features Auto White Balance, backlight compensation, gamma correction and four selectable frequencies. This wireless device also includes a receiver for transmission, so you can move the clock from room to room without hassle. The Bolide Technology Group BC1094 Color Wall Clock Hidden Camera does the same, but with ¼” Color CCD, 420-450 lines of resolution and an optional battery pack.

The water and shock-resistant Brite-Strike Duty Light Flashlight Camera is great for security guards that need some video backup of their rounds. The fully-functioning flashlight features a 200-Lumen LED and a built-In 640 x 480 Pixel CMOS Video Camera for higher-definition recording. It also features 2.5 hours of run time and 6 hours of storage for video recording.

Pocket Surveillance Cams

Most news television shows feature undercover reporters with hidden surveillance cameras exposing wrongdoers. But did you ever wonder how the wrongdoers never noticed that the person talking to them was actively filming them? Welcome to the world of pocket mini-surveillance cameras. These devices are as inconspicuous as you can get.

Take for instance the Avangard Optics USB Pen Camera. This built in camera-recorder features 4GB of built-in storage for almost 2 hours of AVI video recording at a resolution of 352 x 288. It uses a rechargeable lithium battery and operates as a fully functioning pen. The Avangard Optics AN-P721 HD USB Pen Camera does much of the same, but with a 1280 x 720 resolution for even better clarity. At that resolution, it can only hold one hour of video. Both connect via USB to a PC for downloading your video and audio.

The Swann PenCam also records up to 90 minutes audio and video (at 640 x 480) in its 4GB drive, and includes time-stamping features for your digital captures. It also captures still images at 1280 x 1024 and includes a switch to toggle photo and video modes. The pen is really an enclosed USB flash drive, so you just plug the pen into your computer when you want to download your captures.

For super-cool sleuthing, you could go all James Bond and opt for a 4GB Mini Spy Video Camcorder Watch by the Bolide Technology Group. The AVI video capture can be recorded in 640 x 480 resolution, and images go as high as 1280 x 960. It includes a built-in mic with a 15 square meter range. It runs on a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery and includes LED status indicators to show you whether you are recording audio/video or still images. The Avangard Optics Waterproof Spy Watch Recorder also records 640 x 480 AVI at 30 fps, has a built-in mic, battery-life indicator, and USB connectivity. It is also water resistant (but is not meant for underwater use) and gives you about an hour of recording trime.

Aerial Spycam Toys

Want to keep an eye on all that construction in your neighbor’s backyard without seeming nosy? Or maybe you’re just a little brother who makes his mark by annoying his older siblings? Either way, these aerial cameras attached to toy helicopters are sure to entertain and inform. Mostly inform.

The Black Swann RC Stealth Helicopter by Swann is perfect for reconnaissance missions, as long as those missions only last about 6-8 minutes. This gyro-balanced copter features 640 x 480 resolution AVI recording to an included 1GB microSD card. It can travel distances up to 100’ (30 m) and features Easy-Fly Gyro technology to help stabilize flight levels. It comes with 6-way multidirectional controls, and video can be transferred to any PC with an SD card reader (microSD adapter is included). Swann also has the Sky Eye RC Military Helicopter, which contains all the same features (flight time, resolution, controls) but contains a 512MB built-in memory unit. You simply hook the 'copter up to your PC for direct download of your covert activities.

So, whether you need to keep a close eye on the world around you, want to keep a record of any suspicious activity, or are just a nosy person with too much time on your hands, the toys in this article should help you in your burgeoning career as a private investigator, law enforcement official or that little brother or sister who never gets invited to the movies with your siblings' friends.