Faux Pas

How Sony Accidentally Created a Camera That Could See Through Clothing

When tech giant Sony released its Handycam camcorder in 1998, it boasted that it had the most innovative features to date. The camera’s night vision technology was so advanced that company executives hoped it would knock consumers’ socks off.

The product did, in fact, make history. It didn’t have to knock anyone’s socks off, however. It was able to see right through them.

The Handycam model included an infrared nightscope that would allow its users to capture images in low-light environments. It was designed to be used for recording footage of nocturnal wildlife. Much to the horror of Sony executives, it proved to be useful for some unintended purposes.

An early advertisement for the Handycam, showing the intended use for its night vision technology.

Someone discovered that a filter that cost less than $7 could be added to the Handycam to turn it into a peeping Tom’s dream gadget. When thus equipped, the camcorder had the ability to look beneath certain kinds of clothing.

The word spread like wildfire after Japan’s best-selling men’s magazine Takarajima ran an article about this feature in its pages. It revealed how the “Night Shot” feature, when used during daylight hours, turned the camcorder into a portable x-ray device. The article included several photos taken with the camcorder on various models. They demonstrated the device’s ability to make certain clothes transparent, revealing tattoos, underwear, and body parts that would ordinarily be concealed.

The Handycam’s creepy features seemed to work best on dark, thin clothing, such as swimsuits. The degree of transparency depended on the fabric’s properties for absorbing infrared light waves.

Although this unexpected feature might have been a winning marketing strategy for demographics such as voyeurs, perverts, and that creepy-looking guy who always hung out by the playground when we were kids, Sony was less than enthusiastic. It did not want to be known as the company that attempted to legitimize such an invasive breach of privacy. As a result, Sony initiated its largest product recall, attempting to pull back 700,000 units that had already been sold.

It was an innocent mistake on Sony’s part. Company executives tried to put on a brave face. Unfortunately, it didn’t take a Handycam to see through the façade and recognize their utter embarrassment.

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