Sure, spies have charm, cat-like reflexes and an uncanny ability to seduce anything that walks, but without their gadgets, they'd have a tougher time getting out of sticky situations.
While the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. doesn't sell the infallible Cone of Silence (my favorite spy gadget of all time), it does have a nifty pen camcorder to help you get started on your next mission, should you accept it.
Embedded within this $75 ballpoint pen, the MP9, is a tiny camera that can capture more than two hours of footage on 4GB of storage (up to 80 minutes on a full charge). The pen untwists into two halves: the bottom part for writing (yes, it works as an actual pen) and the top half for recording. After you're done capturing all the details of an evil mastermind's plan for irradiating America's gold supply — or something to that nature — you plug the pen into a USB port to transfer the incriminating evidence onto your computer.
Novel as this might be, how does it perform in real life? We find out.
Let's start with a disclaimer. To be clear, there are some guidelines that should be followed when recording people without their consent. In most public places and businesses open to the public, you should be fine, but it becomes dicey in other situations. As a general rule, in places where people can expect some modicum of privacy, such as bathrooms, changing rooms and hotel rooms, the spy pen should be relegated to its most basic function of writing. Assume that you're always using it at your own risk in any case.
With that out of the way, using the MP9 is incredibly simple. A button on the top turns on the camera. On the other side of the camera is a light that illuminates yellow in standby and blue when recording. In order to switch between photo and video shooting modes, you unscrew the pen and flip a tiny switch.
The quality of the photos and images isn't too shabby — actually, quite impressive given the camera's miniature stature. It's not high-res by any means, but it's more than enough to capture some damning proof a la security cameras at 1280x960 for photos and 640x480 for videos. (Above is a screenshot of the video I shot while ordering at a restaurant.)
As expected with a teeny sensor, this doesn't perform particularly well in low-light situations but you can make out the details in dim — not dark — lighting. In well-lit situations, it does adjusts for white balance quickly on the fly. The pen also doesn't handle motion very well, and if you wear this pen in your pocket protector (admittedly that's the last thing a spy would wear), you'll find the footage very Blair Witch-like. While the audio has a limited range, it's fine for recording secret conversations within a few feet. Otherwise, it'll mostly capture ambient sound, aka your shirt ruffling.
While relatively straightforward, this spy pen doesn't always succeed in being covert, a must have given the line of work.
For starters, I find that I have trouble turning this on. The directions say to press the button on the top for a few seconds, but the only way I've gotten it started is by charging it right before. When it's finally on and recording, the light is shining a bright blue, anything but stealthy. Security-conscious villains will definitely notice. This is another reason I'd suggest leaving it in your shirt pocket, since the light will be obscured.
I'd also recommend sticking to video recording because it's so cumbersome to switch between photo and video modes. The switch that's on the top half of the pen is incredibly small, and I find I never actually flip it on first try. Furthermore, the modes aren't marked, so if you're forgetful, you might be taking stills when you think you're recording video evidence. To err cautiously, stick with video, even if you have to sit through and review shaky footage.
Lastly, there should be some sort of wireless transfer — encrypted of course. The USB design does make it easy to transfer data, but chances are headquarters wants this information stat — not after you're done dilly daddling with evil friends, polishing off martinis, bedding blondes, and escaping after being found out and held captive. (Fun fact: Despite Mr. Bond's affinity for shaken, not stirred, Alton Brown actually suggests the latter because the former cools down the drink too much.)
Then again, maybe stealthiness is overrated. 007 was the least covert spy ever, so this pen likely won't be your downfall. If anything, just the 4GB flash drive alone makes this pretty practical.
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All images by Alice Truong for DVICE