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If It's Heat Your Phone Seeks, Try a Thermal Camera

The Seek thermal camera plugs into iPhones or Androids, bringing once-pricey technology to regular people.

Neil Hickey for Re/code

The smartphone camera has come a long way from the days when blurry phone photos would only suffice if a dedicated camera wasn’t available.

Its small build boasts features like optical image stabilization, face detection and burst mode for shooting fast-moving subjects. Yet, it still can’t do anything crazy like telling how hot or cold an object is just from looking at it.

Or can it?

This week, I tested a seriously cool (and hot) device: The Seek thermal camera. It weighs half an ounce, measures just three inches long and plugs into an iPhone or Android smartphone so you can “see” in the dark. You do this by holding up your phone with the Seek thermal attached, aiming it at an object in front of you and seeing hot or cold represented by colors on your screen. An on-screen button lets you toggle between still photos and video.

Starting today, this tiny camera is sold online for $200. This price is pretty remarkable, considering that industrial versions of thermal cameras used by firefighters, police and contractors cost between $3,000 and $5,000 — and those prices are lower than ever in the past 10 years.

I’ve been testing the iPhone version of the Seek thermal camera, and I found it fun to use. It’s more of a niche product and, in my life, worked mostly as a parlor trick.

I used it to snap a thermal shot of my boss, Walt Mossberg, holding a chilly iced coffee.

He returned the favor with a lovely shot of me, which portrays me as a cartoon character with cold lips.

When I snuck into my son’s nursery to check on him at night, as I usually do, I used the Seek thermal camera instead of my flashlight, and saw a hot glow coming from his crib.

The Seek thermal camera also works for more functional purposes. For example, if you had raccoons in your neighborhood and your dog didn’t get along with those raccoons, you could hold your Seek thermal camera up and scan your backyard for raccoons before letting your dog out at night. You could hold it up to the ceiling to figure out exactly where water was pooling. Or you could scan a parking lot for people before walking out to your car alone in the dark.

Seek Thermal, a Santa Barbara-based startup, collaborated with Raytheon and Freescale Semiconductor to build this tiny camera. It’s competing against an existing alternative — the $349 Flir One from Flir Systems, a well-known company in the thermal-imaging world. Along with its comparatively higher price, the Flir One is limited by design: Its thermal camera is housed in a phone case that currently only fits the iPhone 5 or 5s.

Both Flir Systems and Seek Thermal have made their technology workable with other devices, so we may see thermal functions built into smartphone cameras sometime in the not-so-distant future. This would let people skip the step of plugging in a thermal camera, like Seek, or putting the phone in a special case, like the Flir One.

The Seek thermal camera’s corresponding app is well done, but I only tested a prerelease version of it; it’s expected to be released in the Google Play and Apple App Store in about two weeks.

My three favorite features in the app were an on-screen temperature indicator that shows the hottest and coldest temperatures in any shot, a slider that lets you glimpse something with or without thermal detection, and the app’s variety of 16 thermal-camera colors.

Since you won’t want to keep the Seek thermal camera plugged into your phone, it comes with a hard case that can attach to a keychain.

Most people will do what I did, taking this camera out once in a while for short spurts of time. That’s a good idea, because the Seek thermal camera uses your phone’s battery to operate.

In the company’s extreme use-case scenario test, which kept the iPhone display on and the camera on and plugged into an iPhone 6 with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, cellular and cellular data on, and screen brightness at 50 percent, the iPhone battery died after three hours and 42 minutes.

In Re/code tests, the iPhone 6 battery lasted 14 or 15 hours in normal use-case scenarios without any cameras attached.

For now, the Seek thermal camera is fun for a little while, but most people will be frustrated by having to take it out and plug it into their smartphones. Unless you have a specific use case for this technology, you won’t mind waiting to use its features when they are built into smartphone cameras.

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