Whether you're a hunter in the woods or a frequent camper who often gets up in the middle of the pitch black night to go to the bathroom, there are gadgets out there that can help.
Not all of them are as affordable as the Seek thermal camera, however. This little apparatus plugs in to your smartphone and turns your regular ol' phone or tablet into a military-grade thermal camera—and it only costs $200. I got to spend a few days tinkering around with it and was sincerely impressed by its capabilities.
A different kind of camera
The Seek Thermal camera is an impressive little piece of hardware. According to the company, the Android-compatible version of the camera comes equipped with the following:
• True thermal sensor
• Long wave infrared: 7.2-13 microns
• Vanadium oxide micro bolometer
• 12 μm pixel pitch
• 206 x 156 resolution array, which equals 32k thermal pixels
• Custom chalcogenide lens with 36 degree field of view
• Durable magnesium housing4
• Detection from -40C to +330C
The 12-micron sensor chip and camera components were developed in collaboration with Raytheon, a California-based company that's specializes in weapons technology and military and commercial-grade electronics.
You can plug in the Seek thermal camera into any Android device running Android 4.4.2. The phone or tablet must have support for USB On The Go, however, or the camera dongle won't work. Seek Thermal said that both the app and camera have been tested extensively with Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5, as well as Motorola's Moto G and Moto X.
Once you plug in the dongle, you'll have to download the app from the Google Play Store. The app is fairly easy to use and works just like any other camera application: just point and click.
You can adjust things like temperature units and the thermal imaging color palette, or add a watermark to your photos to refer to later. You can also adjust the emissivity based on what you're pointing the camera at—the settings differ between paint on the wall and your skin, for instance—or engage ThermalPlus mode, which uses both the smartphone camera and the Seek Thermal camera simultaneously.
You can then switch between each camera by swiping left or right. It makes for a cool effect, though it slows down your device quite a bit. In fact, the whole application is a little sluggish with the camera plugged in, but that's to be expected with a gadget that's as specialized as this.
A surprising variety of uses
I wasn't entirely sold on the idea of an affordable, consumer-oriented thermal imaging camera when I first heard of the concept, but that's because I've never used one myself. This one in particular could be used in a variety of situations, like scanning a dark parking lot at night, seeing where the heat is leaking from your windows, or measuring the internal temperature of the meat you're grilling. Of course, you can also use it to take selfies. That's what I did.
The only issue in my brief time with the Seek Thermal camera is that it doesn't face the right way on the HTC One (M8), nor the Nexus 5. The dongle doesn't swivel around, and I can only take front-facing thermal images rather than rear-facing ones, which doesn't help a gal like me in a dark parking lot. You'll have to check to see that your microUSB port is facing flat-side down when you're staring at it straight-on before you consider buying this first-generation product. Seek Thermal is aware of this and even has a warning up on its site.
An affordable tool
Much like the GoPro became the affordable little video camera for adventure junkies, the Seek Thermal camera is for those who need the utility but can't afford to invest in all the other offerings out there. There's gadgets like the Flir One, though that's currently only available only to iPhone 5 and 5S users, with tentative plans to bring it to Android platform. Other thermal camera gadgets that are actually compatible with an Android device cost as much as $1000. A general contractor like my father, who runs his own business, can't afford to fork over that much money for such a small utility, but I can see him keeping a little dongle like this in his truck for those instances he needs it, and using the app to send screenshots to his clients.
Seek Thermal hopes the public will find its thermal camera as more than just a utility, however. "We see this going into a product that will have a different number of use cases," said Robert Acker, CEO of Seek Thermal. "I can see more custom use cases that require some dedicated form-factors and user experiences…one could imagine a battery-powered version that you hang in the tree above your tent. That would be something a [tinkerer] could have fun making."
Acker added that the company has plans to release an SDK in 2015 for others to write applications for the Seek Thermal camera dongle. "We tried to build a jack of all trades smartphone accessory that can be used in a variety of situations."
The Seek thermal camera is $200 and will be available at Amazon and other retailers. The app isn't live in the Google Play Store just yet.