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Heat seeker: Meet the thermal-imaging camera you can afford

Seek Thermal's $199 device can read temperature differences up to 1,000 feet away and identify a person at 200 feet. Until now, such technology has cost $1,000 or more.

Seek Thermal's $199 camera can help find energy leaks, or spot a person hiding in the bushes. Seek Thermal

If you want to try to find a water leak behind a wall, a person hidden in the bushes at night, or identify passengers with a fever passing through a checkpoint, thermal imaging is the technology for you.

But until now, that was only if you've got a very big budget. Cameras equipped with the technology -- which measures differences in temperature on the electromagnetic spectrum -- have long been too expensive for everyday use. Most cost well over $1,000, if not double, or triple that.

On Thursday, Seek Thermal, a Santa Barbara, Calif., startup, unveiled a $199 thermal camera designed for the masses. A small, handheld device that plugs into smartphones, the camera may be the first available to everyone. The company is also working on developer tools that will allow third parties to build custom products around its core technology.

The Seek Thermal camera, which may be the first on the market at a mass market price point. Seek Thermal

It's not just individuals looking to find hidden leaks who could find the technology useful. Seek Thermal is betting that significantly cheaper thermal-imaging cameras will also be attractive to airlines, which could identify weak spots on planes (which would have a warmer heat signature) before they break, and to law enforcement and the military, since the device can spot people or other heat sources in the darkness. A wide range of others, including companies in the medical, camping, hunting and marine industries, may also find new applications for the technology.

According to Seek Thermal CEO Robert Acker, the company spent several years trying to figure out how to get the cost of the devices to the consumer level price points. The breakthrough, he explained, was a new chip designed in partnership with the giant defense contractor Raytheon and Freescale Semiconductor, as well as an inexpensive sensor -- the camera's lens -- that is able to read temperature differences at distances of up to 1,000 feet, and detect a person at 200 feet.

At a glance

The camera is designed to find heat sources. Hot water sitting in a kitchen pipe, for example, looks bright yellow in a Seek Thermal image. A person hidden in shrubbery is equally easy to spot.

And that's the idea -- that users can tell at a glance what they're looking at, whether it's a thief hiding in the bushes, a leaky window or a racoon in a yard waiting for the chance to snack on someone's vegetable garden.

Hot water clogged in a kitchen pipe glows yellow in this image taken with the Seek Thermal camera. Seek Thermal

The camera weighs half an ounce, and generates thermal imagery with a resolution of 206 by 156 pixels, or 32,000 "thermal pixels," the company said.

There are, of course, other thermal imaging cameras on the market. Among them are the $1,195 Flir i3, the $1,495 Flir E5, the $1,769.95 Fluke TiS Thermal Imager, and others. There's also the purpose-built Black & Decker TLD 100 Thermal Leak Detector, which runs just $28.02 on Amazon. But Acker argues that the Black & Decker device isn't a thermal camera, doesn't show any images, and "just reads the single surface temperature of an object when you hold the camera very close to it."

Acker added that other thermal devices costing between $45 and $400 have the same limitations.

Seek Thermal will begin selling its camera on its Web site, and through Amazon today, and through national retailers later in the fall.