If you could have any feature in a smartphone, what would it be? A battery that lasts a week? A truly unbreakable screen? What about a thermal camera? Okay, so that last one has probably never crossed your mind. But that's exactly what Cat is pitching with its latest handset, the S60. I dismissed the idea at first, thinking it was a novelty meant for the company's core market -- people that work outdoors, like bricklayers and electricians. It would never appeal to a "normal" like me, surely?
Pete Cunningham, a Senior Product Manager for the Bullitt Group -- the company that makes Cat's smartphones, as well as gadgets for other brands like the Ministry of Sound -- thinks otherwise. Yes, thermal imaging will be most useful for professionals. If you're an electrician, you could use the live heat map to see if a fuse box is overloaded. As a plumber, you could find where the hot water is getting blocked in a complex set of pipes. But, according to Cunningham, there are plenty of mundane applications too. If you're having a barbecue with some friends, for instance, you could check the gas left in a canister and the temperature of your burgers.
I know, that's an oddly specific example. But Cunningham trusts that people will find more, equally weird ways to use the technology. He compares it to regular smartphone cameras, which are now being used for AR games and to check prices online. In the beginning, companies had no idea they would be used that way. "To date, (thermal imaging) has never been put in the hands of everyday consumers," he says. "We believe that in five years time, you'll see this in 40 to 50 percent of smartphones."
On the back of the device lie two cameras. The first is a Lepton thermal imaging sensor, which has been developed by an industry specialist called FLIR. The second is a traditional 13-megapixel camera, which takes the heat map and augments it with the outlines of nearby objects. Panning around the room, I was able to tap a focal point and slide it around the screen to check different temperatures. I'll admit, it was novel to see how my cup of coffee had cooled over the last half an hour.
Heck, I even took a "thermie" (their term, not mine).
As for the rest of the device? Well, it packs some reasonably high specs in a package which, while beefier than your average smartphone, should be more appealing to the average consumer. At least in comparison to its previous efforts, anyway. The 4.7-inch, 720p display is surrounded by a smooth metal rail and a backplate with a carbon fiber finish. Large, clicky buttons are visible from almost every angle and there's a small, slightly bulbous bump at the top with FLIR's logo. It won't beat the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge (or soon, the Galaxy S7 Edge) to any design awards, but it looks just a little more, well, normal than other Cat smartphones.
For $599 (€649) you'll get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. It's a flagship price with, in terms of traditional specs, just shy of flagship performance. But that thermal imaging counts for something and the Cat S60 has a few other tricks worth considering. For instance, Cunningham says it's the world's most waterproof smartphone, withstanding up to an hour at a depth of five meters. It's also dustproof and can be dropped onto concrete from up to 1.8 meters -- the average height when someone's talking on the phone.
Cat and the Bullitt Group know thermal imaging will appeal to people working in vocational trades. So while the technology is a first for a smartphone, it carries little commercial risk. In all likelihood, the phone will simply sell to Cat's established niche in the market. The challenge, however, is to sell that same technology to a mainstream audience. I'm not convinced it's something people want, but it's certainly different and innovative. At a time when almost every smartphone looks and acts the same, it's nice to see a company doing something so off the wall.