Thermal cameras that can see a person's body heat were once expensive tools that only police and the military used. But now they're small and cheap enough to work alongside your smartphone. And FLIR's latest model will make anyone feel like the Predator hunting its prey.
Imagine a camera that lets you see what the human eye can't, even in the dark of night. That's what the thermal sensor inside the FLIR ONE is capable of, and the latest version not only introduces a vastly improved compact design allowing it to work with more devices, it's also got upgraded optics and streamlined software. But the most exciting new feature could be FLIR's new SDK allowing third-party apps to finally take advantage of what its thermal sensor can see.
But before we dig into all the improvements, what's even more important to mention is that starting today you can finally buy the new FLIR ONE on the company's website. And come July, from Best Buy, Amazon, and Apple's online stores as well.
The original FLIR ONE was one of the most exciting things we'd seen at CES in recent years, but its smartphone case form factor ultimately proved problematic. It made the FLIR ONE bulky, and in turn the phone it was attached to uncomfortably heavy. But it also meant that it was only compatible with the iPhone 5/5S because adding support for other devices required a custom case to fit each one. Android users were promised a version of their own, but were ultimately left out in the cold — and with no way to visualise it.
At $US350 the original FLIR ONE was also expensive, and is still expensive compared to some of the competition. And the thermal sensor used on the original version had a paltry resolution of just 80 x 60 pixels. It was still incredibly fun to experiment with, but all of those limitations meant it probably just wasn't a device you'd be using all the time.
The new FLIR ONE fixes most of those problems. The form factor is now comparable to the more compact Seek Thermal. It's much smaller, much lighter, and now hangs off the bottom of a device which means it can be used with almost any smartphone or tablet. A Lightning connector version lets you use the new FLIR ONE with iPhones and iPads, and, wait for it, there's now a microUSB version that works with Android smartphones and tablets too.
If you choose the iOS route, though, there's an added bonus for you. Because the Lightning connector is reversible, it means you can plug the new FLIR ONE into your device facing either forwards or back. Which of course means that thermal selfies are probably going to become a thing — like it or not.
Despite its smaller size, the new FLIR ONE maintains the unique dual side-by-side camera setup that made the original version so unique. It captures both regular and thermal images and combines them in real-time, with enhancements, so that it's always clear what exactly you're looking at.
The image on the left shows the real-time overlay the FLIR ONE app creates using images from both cameras, while the image on the right is just what the thermal sensor sees. Without the overlay, figuring out exactly what you're looking at in an image is often a mystery.
But FLIR has actually upgraded the thermal Lepton sensor inside the new version of the FLIR ONE to 160 x 120 — a four times boost in resolution. It doesn't sound like much compared to what your smartphone's main camera is capable of, but the improvements are very much noticeable.
The giant blobs of colour on the right represent the limited level of detail in thermal images that the original FLIR ONE could capture. While the shot on the left, clearly revealing what parts of passengers are cool, and which are warm, is what the new FLIR ONE's thermal sensor is capable of distinguishing.
Another feature that FLIR has kept on the new FLIR ONE is its built-in 350 mAh battery that's rechargeable through a microUSB connection. It gives the camera about an hour's worth of battery time on a 40-minute charge, and ensures that while you're using it the FLIR ONE isn't leeching power from your smartphone. A simple power button turns it off and on, but it will automatically shut itself down after a few minutes if you exit the app to help maximise battery life.
The FLIR ONE's accompanying app has also been improved. When the original version of the FLIR ONE was released, additional camera functionality like shooting thermal panoramas was confusingly broken up into several simpler apps. They're now completely unified in the main FLIR ONE app and the various shooting modes are accessible using the same swipe gestures you'd use in the native iPhone camera's app. We weren't able to test the Android version of the app, but presumably it will borrow its UI elements and Material design cues from the latest versions of the OS.
And despite all those improvements, upgrades, and miniaturization, FLIR has still managed to shave $US100 off the FLIR ONE's price tag. The new version is now $US250 which makes it a little easier to justify.
That was the probably the biggest drawback of the original version — figuring out what you'd actually use it for to justify the cost. You can only visualise how hot your burrito is so many times before the novelty starts to wear off. But FLIR has actually managed to fix that too.
Along with the availability of the new FLIR ONE, the company has also revealed the FLIR ONE Developer Program, an SDK for the iOS version, and a soon to be available SDK for Android. These tools will finally give third-party developers access to both sensors in the FLIR ONE, letting them come up with new uses for the hardware besides just taking interesting photos of dinner.
They're not available quite yet, but FLIR has teased a handful of these new third-party apps for the FLIR ONE as part of today's announcements. For starters, Owens Corning is actually working on an app that will allow home owners to not only spot areas in their home where heat is leaking in or out, but also give suggestions on how to deal with the problem.
Using the FLIR ONE for detecting temperature leaks in your home is something FLIR has been suggesting since the original version first came out. But with the added functionality in the new Owens Corning app, you'll actually have a better idea of what you can do about the problem.
Security-based apps like Manything — which turns your old iOS devices into smart surveillance cameras — are also planning to take advantage of the FLIR ONE hardware. For night vision to work there needs to be some source of infra-red light for the camera to detect. They just don't work in complete darkness. But thermal vision does, which means Manything will soon be able to keep an eye out for intruders all night long. They might be able to hide in the shadows, but their body heat can't.
There's even some genuine fun to be had with the FLIR ONE now. A Zombie Vision app uses the camera's thermal vision as a sort of real-time keyer to recognise a person's exposed skin (distinguishing it from clothing) and automatically add real-time zombie effects like green rotting flesh and glowing red eyes.
And this is just what's been created from a handful of developers working with the beta version of the FLIR ONE SDK. Now that it's available to anyone, the app floodgates are officially open.
With its new cheaper price point, upgraded optics, much-improved form factor, and the potential for apps that will take advantage of the thermal sensor in wonderful new ways, the FLIR ONE now has a much better answer to the question; "what would I do with this?" The only question it still can't answer, though, is why that sushi place at the mall is still selling meals that have obviously been improperly refrigerated.