A camera in a pen and a kiosk in an iPad

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.

As might be expected from what is a low-end device the image quality is just OK. This is because the lens is a pinhole so the image resolution is just adequate, while with fixed aperture and exposure you get poor performance under both very low and very bright lighting conditions. The sound quality is not too bad for such a small device.

Another issue was that for reasons I couldn't determine, I wound up with corrupted and unplayable videos a few times.

If I had been asked to design this device I'd have put the power on and video or still setting on the bezel around the start/stop button ... turn the button one way and it would be on and video, center off, and the other way on and still images. Oh, and how about an audio-only mode? Sure, all of that would have added a few more dollars to the price but it would have been a much better product to be able to select the mode easily rather than having to use multiple button presses. Alas, they didn't ask me.

Design recommendations and issues aside, at an RRP of $99 the Swann HD Pencam is amazingly cheap and gets, all things considered, a Gearhead rating of 3.5 out of 5.

Kiosk computers, systems designed to handle a defined and usually limited range of services, are incredibly useful in all sorts of environments including retail, in-house use, control systems and so on. Because these systems are focused on a particular task or set of tasks they are easy and quick to use and usually self-explanatory.

Traditionally these systems have been built on custom platforms or PCs with things like touch screens added, and they could be pretty pricey with the computer hardware alone easily costing upwards of $1,000 to which you'd have to add software and a housing for the final system.

So, what could we replace them with? We'd want something with a touch-screen interface, color display, flexible and simple programming and configuration, reasonably priced ... what could do the job ...? Hmmm, how about using an iPad? Brilliant!

 

As you might have guessed, I have found such a solution based on the Apple iPad: It's the Kiosk from Griffin Technology.

The housing for the iPad (you can use any of the iPad models) is an impact-resistant display mount (which comes as either a counter or floor version) that wraps around an iPad running Griffin's Kiosk App.

The mount is "locked in place with security screws that require a special tool (included) and mounted on a high-strength steel armature. Even the included power cable connection is enclosed and protected." The mount comes with three faceplates so you can select whether both, either or neither of the iPad camera and Home button are exposed.

The Kiosk App presents Web pages only, so applications can't be used for the user interface and the system is configured from the iPad Settings App. You can name the Kiosk and configure which URL is to be the Home Page. You also specify which domains the kiosk is allowed to access and it is vital to have the Home Page domain listed in the Allowed Domains list otherwise you'll get a blank page (the domain of the Home Page should be automatically added to the Allowed Domains list).

Other configuration options include whether any or all of the address, status and navigation bars are displayed, whether the optional custom navigation bar is shown at the bottom of the screen, the inactivity timeout after which the kiosk session is abandoned, the SMTP mail settings used, and whether email notifications will be sent if the iPad is unplugged, the battery gets low or it's subjected to excessive force (this is detected by the iPad's accelerometers).

This is a fantastic product that makes building a kiosk service extremely simple and affordable. Combine this platform with the slick things that can be done with JavaScript and HTML5 and you have a really powerful, low-cost solution.

The Kiosk housing is priced at $199 for the desktop version and $299 for the floor version, while the Kiosk App is a measly $2.99. The Griffin Kiosk is a great idea and gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.

Gibbs is stealthy in Ventura, Calif. Send your mission details to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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