Have you ever been tempted by those saucy pop-under Web ads for the X10 wireless spy camera? The ones that show young ladies (babysitters? neighbors?) in suggestive poses and list rooms in the house (living room? bedroom?) where a hidden camera might be just the ticket? Of course not. You just want to keep an eye on the nanny when you're at work. Or so the people who buy spy cameras claim. Though it's likely that at grad schools across America there are Foucauldians beavering away on dissertations titled Toward a Hermeneutics of Wireless Web Cams, I care little for "gaze" theories and discussions of the panopticon. I just want to know if those cheap little cameras really work or if they're the Internet equivalent of cereal box trinkets.
The basic idea of spy cameras is that you hook them up to your television, and then you see whatever the camera sees. In the case of wireless ones, like the heavily advertised X10, you hook a receiver to your television and place the camera up to 100 feet from the receiver. If you want to record your subject for posterity, you can also wire a camera to your VCR and attach a motion detector so it only tapes when someone's in the room. (Otherwise you may end up with a whole tape with footage of an empty room.) You can spend anywhere from $80 to several hundred dollars. Do those extra bucks get you anything worthwhile?
To find out, I bought an $80 X10 camera, a more expensive model from Radio Shack, and an even fancier one from a local spy shop to see how the Internet cheapie matched up. Since I have no pets to survey, let alone a nanny, I decided to watch the gaggle of rowdy customers who sit outside the "grocery" store across the street from my apartment talking on the payphone, squabbling with each other, and sipping out of brown paper bags. What would I see if I were able to stare at them unnoticed for an entire evening?
Included with the wireless color X10 indoor-outdoor camera were a free HawkEye Motion Sensor and a VCR Commander (this allowed you to control the VCR from another room in the house, though that didn't seem like a very useful feature). Each item required its own AC adapter (three total), so set-up would require most of a power strip. I didn't start to feel creepy about my project until my credit card was charged. All the bill said was "Electrical parts/equip" as if the camera were some sort of brown-wrappered porn, swathed in euphemism to hide it from a spouse reading the Visa bill.
Next I went to Radio Shack and bought the Wireless Observation System ($149.99). Like the X10, it shot in color, was wireless, and would work indoors and out. The main difference between the WOS and the X10 was a built-in microphone—when I bought the X10 it hadn't even occurred to me there would be no sound—and Radio Shack's far more complete instruction manual.
For a high-end camera, I went to the Spy Connection, a Seattle shop that bills itself as "outfitters for the urban investigator." I was planning to buy a pricey wireless camera, but the salesman convinced me to go with wired. His reasoning? No worries about transmission interference—plus, the No. 7, aka the Visiontech 1/3" B/W Board Camera with Pinhole Lens, was a real "sweetheart" and had been involved in "12 busts." One mother had hidden the No. 7 in a Kleenex box to catch the nanny, another had hidden the No. 7 in a rattan plant basket, also for a nanny bust. Just what these nannies were doing, he didn't say. But I was sold. Unlike the two wireless cameras I had purchased (both of which were about 3-inches-cubed, not including the paddle antenna they needed to broadcast the signal), this one looked like it would be easy to hide: It was about 1-inch-square and a half-inch thick.
Aside from the array of cameras, the spy shop had brass knuckles, blackjacks, "slappers," slingshots, books with titles like Knife Fighting and How To Make Disposable Silencers, and cameras hidden in teddy bears (ick!). Under the sway of the violent and shifty atmosphere, I spent $260 and walked out with a minuscule camera, 60 feet of cable, an AC adapter, and 30 minutes of unsolicited free-associated advice on sneaky places to hide the camera in my home.
Here's how they stacked up:
First I have to clear up a major misconception. This camera bills itself as "wireless." Technically this is true: Instead of a wire connecting it to your television, this camera sends the image via radio signal, which makes it potentially easier to hide. However, the camera still has a big honking wire hanging off it—it has to be plugged into a power source and needs a big AC adapter. So while you can hide the camera handily in a Kleenex box, that Kleenex box had better be sitting in front of a wall outlet.
The basic way you set up a wireless camera is to 1) aim camera at subject (liquor store); 2) aim camera's antenna at receiver; 3) match receiver channel and camera channel; 4) connect receiver into television's "video in" line. Sounds simple, but it was 20 minutes before I got an image, mainly because the manual gave lousy instructions. The image quality on the television was bad: hazy, greenish, and out of focus—whether the subjects were close up and indoors or farther away and outside.
Radio Shack's Wireless Observation System This system also took me roughly 20 minutes to set up. (Hint: If all else fails, try flipping your power strip off and on.) Once I got an image, it was noticeably better than the X10's. It wasn't as good as the picture I'd get from a local TV station, but the color was truer than the X10's, and it was in focus. When aimed at daylight scenery outdoors, it was quite sharp. The only (slight) drawback to this camera was that the receiver was a bit larger than the X10's. On the plus side for this system: It had a built-in microphone, which even picked up street conversations from my fourth-floor window.
Setting this one up was a breeze, partly because the salesman in the store had spent 20 grindingly slow minutes peering down through his bifocals showing me how to do it, and partly because there was less to connect. Instead of a camera with a power source and channels to set, and a receiver with its own power source and channels to set, and then antennas on each to adjust, all I had to do with this one was plug it into a cable, and plug the cable into a power source and the television (the power and audio lines were joined together). Complete cake. Since the camera was so much smaller than the others, it was infinitely more concealable. Plus, instead of a half-inch lens opening, this camera only needed a pinhole a millimeter or two in diameter to look through.
The image was also incredibly sharp. Yes, it was black-and-white, which has a natural sharpness advantage over color. But the image was in an entirely different category than the other two cameras, especially in low light. Even at night, I could clearly see the faces of the liquor store patrons outside. (One possible drawback: no microphone on this model, but you can buy a cheap baby monitor that will give you sound for $30.)
My recommendation: Spend the extra money. Yes, you can buy cheap cameras online—or even at Target. But the quality of the X10 was too poor to make it a serious contender. Extra money gets you a noticeably better image and smaller size. But image-quality aside, what struck me most about this exercise was how boring surveillance is. Though I'll admit I have on occasion resorted to chucking eggs out of the window to quiet 3 a.m. brouhahas, this night provided none: The best it had to offer up was a minor argument over whether or not the stairs to a neighbor's house were public property. So, think twice before buying a spy camera at all, unless you really suspect a spank-happy nanny.