I turned on the camera, squinted into the eyepiece and surveyed my office. I discovered that the lens is optimized for long-range use--I couldn't focus on anything closer than 10 feet away. But by backing up a bit and adjusting the controls, I was able to get a nice infrared picture of my work space. The image as a whole was bluish and grainy, but the hot spots stood out well. The rear of my computer monitor put out a warm glow, and the vent of the radiator flared like a blast furnace. The window, though, was solid black (it was quite cold outside at the time).
Next, I wandered the hallways of Scientific American, noting the brilliant heat signatures of all the printers and copiers that were turned on. I was a bit leery of training the camera on my colleagues; although the officials at L-3 Infrared Products had assured me that the 250D couldn't see through clothes, I didn't want to take any chances. In the end, I focused the camera on our editor in chief, John Rennie. Luckily for both of us, I saw nothing too revealing. The infrared image delineated the folds of his shirt, but that was about it. His face, though, showed interesting variations--his nose was black, much colder than his cheeks and forehead. Also, his fingers were darker than his palms. Maybe it wasn't as exciting as seeing the bones in your hand, but it was still pretty neat.
John and I played a few tricks with the camera. John placed his hand on the door to his office for about 10 seconds; after he removed it, I could see a handprint of heat on the metal. Then we decided to see if the camera really worked in complete darkness. We went into an office without windows, shut the door and turned off the lights. It was pitch-black, but when I looked in the 250D and scanned the room, I found John hiding in the corner, as bright as a neon sign.
Finally, I took the camera to the famous skating rink at Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. Because the 250D looks so much like an ordinary camcorder, I figured I could pose as a tourist and unobtrusively observe the holiday crowds. In infrared, the scene was like something out of Dante's Inferno: a swarm of ghastly figures with glow-paint faces. In the background, the cars streamed down 49th Street, their front ends lit up by engine heat.
Whereas the 250D was designed for police work, other thermal cameras have been developed for firefighters, who use the devices to locate people trapped in dark, smoky buildings. L-3 Infrared Products has introduced a newer generation of detectors based on microbolometer technology; the devices focus infrared rays on an amorphous silicon material whose electrical resistance drops as its temperature rises. These units require less power than the 250D--they can run on a pair of AA batteries--and can fit in the palm of your hand. The Thermal-Eye X100xp, for example, weighs just 13 ounces. The U.S. Army has bought thousands of these devices, which are now in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The costs of the cameras are dropping as the technology advances, but they still run at least several thousand dollars apiece if you are buying them retail. The steep prices make me nostalgic for the $1.98 x-ray goggles. I'm still hoping to find out if those glasses really work. My kids will be old enough to read comic books soon, and if they're anything like me, I'm sure they'll be clamoring for a pair.
This article was originally published with the title Hot Stuff.