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Will smartphone users warm up to a heat-sensing app?

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By Lisa R. Melsted, Contributor

It used to be that heat-sensing, night-vision technology was only the stuff of Hollywood movies like “Predator”or U.S. military videos of missile strikes and the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

No more. Today, through new add-ons available for smartphones, you can experience the wonders of finding hidden sources of heat, whether in your home or at work.

Two companies, Flir Systems and SeekThermal — both of which have worked on similar technologies for the military — recently released thermal imaging smartphone add-on products. They believe that, like other military technologies that have eventually trickled down to the public (the Internet, for example), thermal imaging can play an important part in everyday life from discovering home heating inefficiencies to detecting fire hazards or burning embers at a campfire. And they’re betting that consumers will find enough creative uses for thermal imaging for it to catch on.

How thermal imaging works

According to Jeff Frank, Flir Systems’ senior vice president of global product, infrared (or thermal) energy has a longer wavelength than visible light and is therefore imperceptible to the human eye. As such, to “see” that part of the light spectrum people need help in the form of imaging technology.

“With thermal imaging, the portion of the spectrum we perceive is dramatically expanded, helping us ‘see’ heat even in the absence of visible light,” Frank said.

Using sensor technology originally developed for military use, the Flir One smartphone add-on uses a very compact thermal camera called the Lepton Thermal Core to take thermal readings of everyday objects. The camera, which the company says is smaller than a dime, converts the heat emitted or reflected by those objects into color images that allow users to see in the dark or detect variations in temperature by “fractions of a degree,” Frank said.

A standard picture is then generated to document the heat source using software algorithms. An accompanying smartphone app allows users to collect and share images — even post them to social media channels. Companion apps also let users enhance or change colors in images, whether for close-ups, panoramas or time-lapsed video.

The Flir One costs $349.99 and is available to iPhone users only. But the company is marketing a software developer kit to encourage people to come up with their own uses for the device.

“By creating a thermal imaging device built on the iPhone platform, we have made thermal imaging as intuitive and inexpensive as ever,” Frank said.

Practical applications

Flir Systems says there are a number of applications for their thermal imaging smartphone add-on, from the practical to the creative.

For instance, the app can be used to detect animals at home or in the woods or to help campers determine if their food is fully cooked when camping in the dark, Frank said. It can also be used for home safety to spot intruders, for heat-seeking scavenger hunts, or for photographers’ creative projects.

Flir expects the add-on to garner the most use among tech and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as home improvement aficionados. The company suggests a number of home improvement uses, including maximizing energy efficiency by locating hot, cold or leaky pipes; finding studs and joists; and looking for overloaded circuits.

Although it would seem the most logical use for this type of technology would be for contractors, plumbers or even firefighters, it may not find use among professionals anytime soon. Chris Mortl, senior project manager at CSI Electrical Contractors in Los Angeles, said that most professional contractors already use thermal imaging technology in their work and there’s no reason to replace their professional-grade equipment with a smartphone app.

“I might use it around the house for fun, but it can’t take the place of a $35,000 camera to find electrical work — we couldn’t use it here,” Mortl said, adding that it’s possible that phones could someday replace the equipment contractors use today, but not yet.

Mark Hoffmann, deputy director for the Oakland Fire Department in Oakland, Calif., agreed. He said the department has been using thermal cameras for nearly 25 years and needs professional-grade cameras.

Hoffmann said, however, that a smartphone imager might be useful for inspectors who often get calls to go into office buildings that smell of an electrical fire only to find that a dying fluorescent light bulb has stunk up the building. “That could easily be discovered with this type of camera,” he said.

For the time being, phones aren’t durable enough to take out on calls, Hoffmann said.

“Most guys I know aren’t taking them into fires,” he said. “They’re sticking them in the glove box or leaving them back at the firehouse when they hear it’s a fire coming in.”

Meanwhile, Flir is hoping that thermal imaging will catch on with consumers.

“The more people that use Flir One,” Frank said, “the more interesting, novel and useful benefits we will all uncover together.”

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