With my trench coat and dark glasses, I looked like a rumpled, portly version of Jason Bourne or James Bond as I stood by the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, famed as the transfer point for captured spies between the East and the West during the Cold War.
As for the secret I carried, well, it was technological: Swann Communications Ltd.'s new PenCam DVR, a thick ball point pen that sports a tiny video camera and 2 gigabytes of memory. I felt well prepared to be a super spy instead of an anonymous reporter.
Sadly, fact trumps fantasy, and though the PenCam is plenty of fun, it has its limitations.
As spy craft goes, there's been no dearth of tiny cameras. Agencies like the Soviet-era KGB, Britain's MI6 and the East German Stasi were quite adept at hiding them in everything from belt buckles to coat buttons.
Swann's nifty little device has the advantage of being available to anyone, for $120. And it takes about three hours of video — though be warned, it lacks the sharper quality you're probably used to from higher-end cell phones or even webcams. It was clear enough for me to take footage of cityscapes and people and even to capture the text on some documents.
The pen's camera is basic but functional, shooting in the AVI format, which can be played on Microsoft's Media Player or Apple's QuickTime as well as free applications available online. The camera turns on and off with the press of a small button on top, where the clicker on a normal pen would be. The camera can pick up images while it's facing outward from your shirt pocket; a small light glows blue when the pen is recording and orange when it is paused.
The pen easily connects to a computer through the USB port, though it works only with Windows XP and Vista. It recharges its internal lithium-ion battery while plugged in and can hold other kinds of data files too, like a thumb-drive can. I found that the battery's charge lasted about 90 minutes, as Swann promised.
The audio range on the pen's microphone is only about 3 feet, so don't expect to spy on — I mean record — anyone in a cobblestone plaza or across a crowded room, unless you enjoy the general din. And in my tests the audio was at times muffled even when the source was a foot from the microphone. That's not surprising since the mike is hidden behind the pen clip. It would make more sense to put it below the clip, at least for clarity's sake.
There are other pencams that boast wireless transmission and come with 4 gigabytes of storage, but are nearly double the cost of Swann's. For the price and the novelty, it's a pleasant device to have on you if only to capture footage of an engaging scene or to take video notes for reviewing later.
For spying? I'd recommend talking to the folks at Langley.