Almost since the beginning of photography, there have been "novelty" cameras. Cameras with a novel appearance and, sometimes, function. The Mick-A-Matic is a camera shaped like Micky Mouse's head with an ear as a shutter release.
Many are far smaller than average or are disguised. Some early folding cameras looked like books, others looked like pocket watches. Small box cameras were dubbed "detective" cameras due to their unusually small size and alleged easy concealment.
Many novelty cameras cut quality corners, others were never very serious devices at all. These are not to be confused with "carnival prizes" and "incentive" cameras that looked impressive, but only fooled the gullible. [See the page for Diana Cameras]
One enduring novelty film camera is the "Hit" camera. Made by several companies in Japan and sold under a variety of names, these "midget" cameras used tiny rolls of black and film. Lenses were usually crude and results were not good, not good at all. But the cameras, sold by street vendors at parades and in tourist traps, persisted from the end of WWII to the latter 60's and are now "collectibles."
Some novelty cameras exist in the digital world with similar come-ons and poor results.
Currently there are a dozen or more tiny Chinese cameras, most using the same poor quality COACH (camera on a chip) and unfortunate lens. Some look like tiny cameras, others, packs of gum, car alarm fobs, and USB sticks. Still others are found in working watches or fake disposable lighters. Quality control is terrible, instructions lacking, and controls defy logic.
Hawked as the "world's smallest camera" and offering what they claim is HD video, 5 MP still images and audio recording, most use only two buttons, which you to press to turn on, hold down to switch modes, press again to shoot, etc.
It's confusing with only two small lights to alert you and very poorly written structions. On one, the red LED is means video shooting and the blue LED means still shots. Turn on the camera and see the blue LED to take a still shots, right? Wrong. The startup of the camera system is indicated with the blue LED and, when ready to shoot, turns red for the default movie mode. Then pressing the MODE button turns it to blue for stills. Try explaining that in a poorly written leaflet that comes with the camera!
Other cameras use and internal vibrators, similar to cell phones, to signal modes and photos taken. This is especially odd in a camera with a lens that looks like a shirt button, meant to be worn under a shirt for "covert" photography. "Hey, Fred, why is your shirt buzzing?" Oops.
Most use a standard MicroUSB cable to transfer files and charge the built-in battery. Some, especially "spy watches," use something else and Heaven help you if you lose the cable. The cameras store files on a MicroSD card, the watches do not.
One camera refused to give me back my card, as it went in very far. It also had a weak connector that had to be held just right to transfer images, It ended up disassembled for an illustration here!
Almost universally, these camera imprint a date on each shot, and it is not correct. There are instructions online how to defeat this. It involves placing a plain text file on the storage card.
There are few enthusiasts for these cameras. I have found no "fine art" images or "personal vision" displays of shots taken with these. Even creeps trying to get shots of people they shouldn't have likely walked away disappointed.
There is, however, a higher priced tier of novelty cameras that has hit the LOMO/Holga scene. That is for another time!
One group that sort-of embraces these cameras is the radio-control model plane crowd. They diligently research the best cameras and attach them to their planes. But with the advent of drones (groan), perhaps they have moved on.
So, perhaps in 50 years, some of these will be sought-after relics of the digital camera dinosaur days. But right now, aside from the novelty, you can do a lot better.
Novelty Cameras? Cool or Junk?
Actual photo taken by me with a "Hit" camera (1965).
Actual photo taken by me with a "novelty" digital camera (Saturation boosted).