Thermal imagers that let you visualize heat are awesome tools. Around PCWorld, I use them to visualize hot spots on laptops or hardware I'm testing.
But there's really nothing hardcore about a $200 smartphone accessory. For something truly over-the-top, I reached out to Armasight to test the company's $9,594 Zeus Pro 640 4-32x100.
It's a full Mil-spec thermal imager. And by Mil-spec, I don't mean the watered-down Mil-spec definition thrown around by every Tom, Dick and Kumar tech company in town. The Zeus Pro can sink 20 meters under water for two hours and come out fine. It's also strong enough to withstand the pounding of being mounted to a .50-caliber rifle.
The Armasight Zeus Pro is tough enough to be mounted to a .50-caliber rifle and can be sunk under water to 20 meters for two hours. Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
How thermal imagers work
Thermal imagers work by seeing in the spectrum beyond visible light (what humans can normally perceive as visible). The thermal gradations are translated into colors that humans can perceive. For example, when the Zeus Pro is set to a rainbow color palette, cold looks blue and heat looks yellow or red. The Zeus Pro offers multiple color palettes to suit the application. One especially neat one was "rain," which would be used for seeing through heavy rain. As PCWorld is located in California, it's not a mode I could test easily during our current drought.
The Zeus Pro uses a 100mm objective lens made of germanium, an element that's transparent to the infrared spectrum. This front element magnifies the image, which is fed into an imaging core made by FLIR. It's FLIR's top-of-the-line Tau 2 core, which produces a 640x512-resolution thermal image.
Most people's exposure to thermal imaging is through the movie Predator. This is a still frame from the alien hunter's thermal vision, which is actually inferior to the Zeus Pro's. Credit: 20th Century Fox
Among thermal imaging cores, two of the main differences are the resolution they produce and the frame rate. From our 4K view of the world where phones have QHD+, a VGA-like resolution may seem pretty pathetic, but it's the tops in portable thermal imaging.
The original FLIR One consumer model, for example, features a resolution of 80x60. Those aren't typos. FLIR cleverly makes up for that by mixing visible light images, so you don't just see blobs of color.
The consumer-grade FLIR One gets around its low 80 x 60 resolution by mixing it in with visible light imagery. It would otherwise look like smears of light. Credit: PCWorld
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