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Hands on: FLIR One Thermal Camera

Practical applications aside, this thing is just really fun to play with- looking at everyday life through a thermal camera doesn’t get old.

No modern thriller movie is complete without some plot arc involving a thermal-imaging camera and bad guys getting blasted through a wall. While you probably won’t want to recreate those scenes at home, adding the new FLIR One thermal camera to your iPhone makes it a possibility.

For the uninitiated, FLIR is a preeminent builder of thermal imaging tech that you’ve probably never heard of. Catering mostly to the military and other niche markets with deep pockets, even its cheapest cameras are nowhere near impulse-buy territory. The new FLIR One, introduced at CES 2014, changes all that, opening up thermal photography to the masses at a reasonable price.

The One is a camera sled with battery that slides onto the back of an iPhone 5 or 5s, adding about a half inch to both the length and thickness of the phone. The back of the sled has a pair of lenses and a multi-function switch, as well as a cutout for the iPhone’s onboard camera. The battery on the sled only powers the thermal camera at the moment, but FLIR tells us that it will double as a battery-booster for the phone on the final shipping version of the product.

Once the sled is mounted on the phone and the FLIR One MX app is running, toggling the camera switch down starts the action. Right away, it looks just like what you’d see in a movie. At this point, there are loads of things you could do with it. Energy hawks will love checking for air leaks around the house. Pet owners can figure out where Puddles wet the rug without sniffing around on the floor. The paranoid can look for intruders in the house or yard. Sportsmen can make night hunting a little less sporting. Parents can cheat at hide-and-seek. Practical applications aside, this thing is just really fun to play with- looking at everyday life through a thermal camera doesn’t get old.

The default app mode combines both the visible-light and thermal cameras to overlay relative temperature information on a normal image. Another flip of the switch on the camera will calibrate the temperature sensor so that tapping on points in the image will display the actual temperature, accurate to about one degree. Standard things you’d expect to be able to do with a camera are there, like taking snapshots, recording video, and sharing to social media. The video is quite responsive to movement, but a bit more sluggish than the iPhone’s native camera, and at a lower VGA resolution. There are numerous color palettes to choose from for the thermal imaging. The classic rainbow palette works well for most things, but can obscure details in some cases. If the temperature differential is low (like when trying to locate studs or plumbing in a wall), grayscale is a better choice for seeing the subtle differences.

The sled’s battery is good for about four hours of thermal imaging fun before it’s time to recharge. It can be left attached to the iPhone while charging, but will charge its internal battery before the phone’s. This is a bit annoying, but will be less of an issue once the sled’s battery can also power the phone.

So where’s the love for Android? Why must the non-Apple crowd ogle the One from afar? FLIR assures us that non-Apple versions of the One are in the works, but that the widely varying form factors on Android phones makes the development process more difficult.

FLIR also plans to release a software development kit for the One, so third parties can build applications for the One. We’re excited to see what kinds of crazy things people come up with that incorporate thermal imaging. Could the next Big Thing be Thermagram or SnapTherm? Maybe a lie detector app? Regardless, we applaud FLIR’s choice to open this technology up to the world to figure out.

Reservations are being taken now on FLIR’s site for the first production batch, which is expected to ship in spring 2014 at a retail price of $349. While that’s not cheap, we think it’s a reasonable price to pay if you have a need for any of the countless applications of thermal imaging, or even if you just want it for fun.

Highs

  • Thermal imaging made affordable
  • Fun. Just fun.
  • Battery booster

Lows

  • iPhone 5/5s only
  • Relatively low resolution (VGA)