This may come as a shock to you, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted a handheld computer/communicator/sensor device like the tricorders on Star Trek. And while today’s smartphones have done a good job on the computing and communicating ends of that spectrum, they’ve left something to be desired on the “sensor” front. So when we were offered a thermal camera accessory for a SEEK Thermal review video, I didn’t even mind that it was last-generation hardware; I jumped at the chance.
The Seek Thermal hardware is a tiny peripheral that comes in both Android- and iPhone-compatible versions –ours is the former– and plugs into your smartphone using MicroUSB. Lock the camera in, download the Seek Thermal app from the Play Store and the next thing you know, you’re seeing the world through the eyes of a T-800. Or a TR-590. (If you get either of those jokes, you can be my friend.)
SEEK’s perspective on the world is a bit different from yours and mine: it sees a false-color representation of the thermal spectrum within the camera’s 36-degree field of view, where different colors represent different temperatures. Wander around taking pictures and you can hear the hardware quietly clicking away as it automatically recalibrates, refreshing the viewfinder more sluggishly than a typical smartphone camera but not so slowly as to be annoying. In addition to the simple color map, you’re given access to a variety of data points: the average temperature at the center of the frame, the highest and lowest extremes in the shot, or only those temperatures above a certain threshold you specify.
There are plenty of practical uses around the house –like determining if your coffee is too hot to drink, seeking out a hot-water leak, or seeing what’s running hot in your home entertainment system– but being able to see beyond the visual spectrum also opens up your perspective in a very cool way. Glass windows, for instance, reflect IR even when it’s too bright outside to see a visual reflection with your eyeball. Your own thermal signature also stretches back in time: chairs “glow” with radiant heat long after you get up from them. Water heaters and furnaces in a pitch-black basement glow a searing yellow in SEEK’s view. And if it’s just cool pictures you’re looking for, toss something in the freezer for a while and then bring it out into the world to make some crazy infra-red artwork.
To be sure, there are limitations here. Exported photos are only about half a megapixel in resolution and they’re watermarked by default (fortunately you can turn this off in the settings). Also the camera itself takes its power from your phone battery, so you’ll want to watch your power consumption if you’re walking around town taking readings for a while. Finally, even this last-gen hardware comes with a pretty hefty price tag of $249. While it’s understandable given how much tech there is in such a tiny package, it’s still pretty steep for an accessory.
Is tricorder technology like this worth the cost? You’ll have to tune in to our SEEK Thermal review video below to find out what we think. Enjoy, and let us know how you’d use such a device in the comments below!