Four incredible smartphone camera technologies

At Mobile World Congress this week, four innovative companies are leveraging smartphone camera technology to do surprising new tricks.

Mobile World Congress this week ushered in a range of trends, including home automation, car automation and 5G.

One underappreciated development is the use of smartphone camera technology for things far beyond the taking of selfies and cat photos.

Here are four really innovative products demonstrated or unveiled at Mobile World Congress that use cameras with smartphones to do amazing things.

A thermal imager

flir one FLIR

The Flir One detects heat signatures and heat patterns.

A U.S. company called Flir Systems demonstrated an update to its Flir One product, a phone attachment that's capable of detecting heat signatures and heat patterns.

A previous version of the Flir One thermal imager was for the iPhone only and required a large iPhone case. The new version  (PDF) will be a dongle that works with both iOS and Android devices.

The Flir thermal imaging device doesn't use the built-in smartphone camera; it has its own optics for thermal scanning, and the Flir One app displays the results of the scans on the phone's screen in real time. The image shows people and objects with colors representing relative temperature, rather than reflected light. Warmer areas are red or yellow, while cooler surfaces show up as blue or black. The Flir One works like a camera: By pressing a button you capture a picture or video of the image you see on the screen. You can have the Flir One point toward the front or the back -- which, of course, makes it possible to take thermal selfies. (For seeing how "hot" you look!)

Flir product manager Mike Walters told me that the Flir One can be used for, say, detecting energy-losing heat leaks in your house, or for detecting electrical or plumbing problems. He also said that the company plans to ship the new Flir One "in the middle of the year" and that it may be priced at around $250.

A Star Trek-like tricorder

An Israeli company demonstrated technology that turns a smartphone into a kind of Star Trek-style "tricorder." The company, called SCiO (pronounced "sigh-oh"), said its technology is able to detect the nutritional quality of food and tell the differences between real and counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

scio scanning apple SCiO

The SCiO tricorder scanning an apple.

It performs these feats by using a built-in spectrometer (a special-purpose optical sensor) to detect and analyze the molecular makeup of anything you point it at. The data harvested by the spectrometer is shuttled via Bluetooth to the phone. It's then uploaded to a cloud server and then compared against a growing database of results, making it possible to identify not only what the object is, but also properties of that object -- the sugar or fat content of foods, for example.

The SCiO is due to ship in June (if all goes according to plan) and will cost $250. It can be pre-ordered online.

A fingerprint scanner

A South Korean company called Union Community announced a phone add-on called Nurugo that's designed bring fingerprint identification functionality to smartphones that don't already have it via their built-in cameras.

About the size of a small box of matches, the Nurugo attaches to the back of a smartphone with magnets. (Union Community claims that it currently supports all Android phones.)

On the side that touches the phone, there's a lens that covers the camera lens. On the other side is a fingerprint reader.

When you scan your finger, a digital representation of your fingerprint shows up on the screen, so you can see the quality of the image. Then, using the Nurugo app, you can lock and unlock your phone with your fingerprint scan. It even works when your skin is wet (which a company representative named Eun Yool demonstrated for me by dipping his finger in a bowl of water, then scanning it).

Union Community isn't planning to sell the  Nurugo directly; it's looking for other companies to resell it. The company also has an API in the works so that other companies will be able to leverage the fingerprint-scanning technology.

An eye scanner

Union Community's Nurugo wasn't the only product at World Mobile Congress that uses an ordinary smartphone camera for biometric identification. The Chinese smartphone company ZTE unveiled a new version of its Android-powered Grand S3 smartphone, which uses its camera to scan eyes for biometric identification (See video above).

The phone uses EyeVerify's EyePrint ID system, which doesn't scan a person's iris, as some eye-scanning biometric tools do. Instead, it maps and reads the pattern of blood vessels in the whites of the eye, which EyeVerify claims are unique to each person, just as fingerprint patterns are.

To unlock a Grand S3, you look at the screen and follow a green line with your eyes. The line moves up and down on the screen for a short while (roughly one minute). The front-facing camera scans your eyes while you're doing this, identifying and mapping the pattern of blood vessels.

Using the Grand S3's eye-scanner isn't quick or convenient, especially compared with fingerprint scanning. But ZTE claims it's more secure because fingerprints can be more easily spoofed.

The ZTE Grand S3 with Eyeprint ID is for sale in China only, and it costs just under $500. The company expects to start selling the phone in the U.S. by the end of the year.

So there you have it: Four amazing ways companies are combining cameras with smartphones.

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