Cell-phone owners prone to what's known as the drunk dial now have a whole new way to embarrass themselves: Phone-makers are packing their latest models with tiny video cameras and big color screens (instead of something useful, like a Breathalyzer). For besotted late-night callers still learning to handle unlimited minutes responsibly, this is enabling technology. Not only will the rest of us have to listen to your rambling five-minute voice mails, now we'll have to look at you, too.
Worse, we'll be joining you. Although Japanese-style superphones equipped with games and Web browsers are a flop with Americans, a camera that lets photo-happy Yanks phone in shots (literally) from on-site is a sure hit.
A lost weekend test-driving a Sanyo SCP-5300 in crowded San Francisco nightclubs proves the point. Flipping the Sanyo open and snapping a few shots with its LED flashbulb turned heads, but hipsters shied away from its electric eye—until a few microbrews later in the evening. Then the same free-spending demographic who shunned the Web phone, the game phone, and the annoying custom-ring-tone phone sauntered over, glass in hand, to try the cam-phone for themselves. Snapping bar stool photos ("Wassuuuuuuuuup?!") and e-mailing them to friends drew crowds. Thumbing through the phone's other features sent the drunkards wandering. Their only question: "What does it cost?" Answer: Sprint PCS offers the phone for $399.99 with a calling plan.
Next month's arrivals will be even more impressive. Nokia's 3650, a sub-$400 video Webcam that happens to make phone calls, is the best of these new hybrid gadgets. The lens on its backside captures still photos big enough to use as screen-savers (640 by 480 pixels). Even better, it'll shoot up to 10 seconds of silent video compatible with both RealOne and QuickTime players. Like the new PDAs, the 3650 blurs the line between phone and PC. Nokia's flagship model can browse the Web wirelessly as fast as an old-fashioned dial-up, and it can make and take calls while transferring pictures in the background. (The average upload/download time is less than a minute.) With Bluetooth and an infrared data port as standard equipment, it can zap its contents to a nearby computer in seconds.
That's where the fun ends and the trouble begins. Nokia should slap these things with a warning label until we're culturally acclimated, something akin to the iPod's "Don't Steal Music"—perhaps "Don't Drink and Dial." Let Japanese officials worry about the threat of "Little Brother" cam-phone voyeurs; the risk to Americans is that after a third round of mojitos, we'll turn the things on ourselves. Sprint PCS already adds unlimited camera use to its calling plans at the happy-hour price of $10 a month. By the time you sober up enough to realize your ex-girlfriend can post your boozy self-portraits to the Net, it'll be too late.