A View to the Infrared

With the huge popularity of smart cell phones has come the rise of the portable infrared camera. One can readily go to Amazon and slew through a series of miniature attachables for your phone, each with their features and abilities. This is a look at two widely accepted models by two companies: FLIR and Seek Thermal. As an educator, having an IR camera is a very cool way to SHOW students what seeing in different wavelengths is all about. Great strides have been made in astrophysics and other sciences due to our abilities to “see” in multiple wavelengths with some very cool tech. So lets look at these two units.

On the left is the Seek Thermal Compact model. This is available now for iPhone series, and will be coming to Android later this summer. Three models are available each with progressively more features/abilities and with increasing price tags. This unit comes in at $249 US. The more expensive they get, the better they are at resolution and frame rate. More can be seen for comparison at their site here: Seek Thermal Compact

On the right is the FLIR One unit for the iPhone. This is a Gen2 unit, as FLIR have a redesign out there for Gen3: a whole new look there, so you likely can find one of these Gen2 units out there for less money.

Cases: The case for the FLIR is not a case so much as a neck lanyard with a rubbery wrap for the camera. It’s difficult to get the camera out of the case, and your finger is likely to hit one of the lenses. The Seek unit has a very nice water proof case with a strong latch and foam insert.

Image Quality: both are fine for image quality given their tiny size. The thing about long wavelength IR is that resolution will suffer, period, unless you are able to fork out many hundreds for a pro level, stand-alone unit from FLIR often used by law enforcement or the military. You wouldn’t be reading this either 😉 The cool thing about the FLIR system is that it has two lenses: one takes images in IR the other in visual wavelengths. The system then does a edge find algorithm on the visual image and uses that to draw outlines in the IR image to accentuate the subject matter. This is a boon and a bust: it makes your subjects obvious. It also fools people unfamiliar with the system into thinking that these edge lines are part of the IR light being received. Nope. Some educational extra work is needed to make sure that people are not fooled.

The FLIR default image: note the edges drawn in by the software to make subjects more visible. This is a nice feature when using the unit to ID small features or plumbing issues in the basement 😉
This is the same subject though I placed a finger over the visual light lens to prevent it from generating an edge to the subject…. except at the far left of this image. The blurriness is typical of IR images.
Here is the same subject taken using the Seek system. No edges here.

Abilities: Both are pretty much equally capable. The abilities of the system (other than the edge drawing feature of the FLIR) are within the software. Seek’s software has the annoying feature of wanting you to join their Seek online group. This can be circumvented, but you have to do this every time you launch the app. Both allow different palettes. Both have spot measurement of temperatures. Both have temperature scales available with the palettes. Some examples for you to enjoy:

Spot temperature reading on the FLIR: looking at the wood of the basement door. Note the cooler air below the door.
Cooler portion of the same door where cool air is being pulled up into the house by the air circulation system in the house.
Can you find the hot cup of coffee in this busy kitchen?
We always know when the dog has been sleeping on the couch…. she leaves her thermal signature wherever she has been. This image had my thumb over the edge-making visual light lens.
Seek’s spot temp measurement of my hot Comcast set top box. The stereo amp is below the Set top unit…. yeah – that is one HOT set top. Shame on Comcast.
Same image but with the temp scale turned on. A nice feature.

Other oddities? Yes! The Seek Thermal systems have no internal battery, so…. it draws all its power from your iPhone and will eat up batteries pretty rapidly. Your phone will also heat up. The FLIR unit has an internal rechargeable battery. This requires a tiny USB plug wire for charging, time to charge, etc. Don’t lose that cable! The internal battery cannot be replaced, though I have had mine for years and have had no issues. Recharging is slow but it lasts a day. Pick your poison. Both units are pretty good given that they are small and limited in resolution. If you like the FLIR edge drawing ability, and its internal battery, then the choice is to go with FLIR. If you do not want/need that edge finding ability, then the Seek is a good choice. Just know that it will consume your phone’s battery for you.

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