Whether a smartphone should include IR capabilities has been an open question for years. Now, Covid-19 is triggering this trend – here are the reasons why.
- The context of thermal sensing/imaging during the pandemic.
- China has paved the way integrating IR sensing in smartphones with the newest Honor Play 4 Pro.
- Side effect of Covid-19: Democratization of IR sensing? What volumes could be achieved?
The Covid-19 pandemic has induced a gold rush in the thermal imaging and sensing industry. All over the world, various media outlets, smaller or larger – even media behemoths – have written pieces about this technology. The hype is justified, since these devices are heavily marketed for detecting elevated body temperatures or, in common terms, if a person has a fever. Fever is one of the major symptoms caused by Covid-19. But it’s not the only symptom, and of course Covid-19 is not the only disease that causes a fever. Nevertheless, thermal imaging/sensing technology brings hope to people and businesses alike. For people it brings a feeling of safety, for example when getting on a plane. For businesses it can help restarting activities. Thermal cameras for body temperature measurement or fever detection are considered as medical devices by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As such, they must comply with specific technology requirements. But integrators must also install them properly and users should follow certain screening guidelines. Besides thermal cameras, demand for temperature guns and infrared thermometers measuring the forehead temperature has also surged during this period.
In mid-May 2020, Yole Développement announced the possibility of a smartphone manufacturer integrating such a thermal imaging/sensing device for body temperature measurement, in the below figure of its Preliminary Report Thermal Imagers and Detectors 2020 – COVID-19 Outbreak Impact. We said that this could be based either in microbolometer technology for more imaging capabilities, or thermopile technology for more simple sensing detection functions. Of course there would be various requirements, from technology to product, such as accuracy, software, form factor and price.
We thought that it wouldn’t be too outrageous for people to measure their body temperature frequently using a smartphone that happens to be constantly in their hands. At other times, this would sound like a niche smartphone feature. But in the new era during and after the pandemic, it could prove as a helpful tool to have.
Therefore, at the beginning of June 2020, Huawei subsidiary Honor announced the Honor Play 4 smartphone, which integrates an infrared temperature sensor. According to Honor, the infra-red (IR) detector has a measurement range of -20°C to 100°C, which is more than enough to cover the human body’s range of potential temperatures. It promises an accuracy of 0.2°C, considered to be well within fever detection requirements. This looks like a medical-grade sensor. From the photo shown here in Figure 2, we believe that there is a possibility that the detector might be the newest Melexis thermopile sensor MLX90632. The specifications also fit with the product sheet. Or at least, it could be a sensor from another manufacturer that has very similar specs with the Melexis one.
Honor isn’t the first company to include temperature-sensing hardware in a smartphone. Caterpillar released the CATS60 in 2016. This was followed later by another iteration, the CATS61, which is a rugged smartphone that came with a miniature thermal imaging camera from FLIR, using the mass-produced Lepton core, based on microbolometer technology. Some people might argue that the CAT series are more like handheld thermal cameras with phone capabilities. Nevertheless, they were marketed by Caterpillar as a smartphone and looked that way. There have also been thermal imaging sensors sold as smartphone plug-in attachments. These might not have that many consumer uses, and the CAT phones were meant for more professional users like workers on building sites and other pieces of infrastructure. Furthermore, the CAT phones and these smartphone attachments for more industrial use-cases do not have sufficient precision for detecting a fever, with a temperature accuracy exceeding 2°C. Also their measurement ranges span -20°C to 500°C or more. As such these devices cannot comply with the requirements for human body temperature measurement, in the 30-45°C range, and accuracy within 0.5°C or less. The market was very limited for those phones having a thermal imaging function, and only reached annual shipments exceeding 250k units according to Yole’s Uncooled Infrared Imagers and Detectors 2019 report. Nevertheless, this is was a very good opportunity for thermal imager manufacturers, since the total market was around 1-1.5M units annually.
Now, Huawei/Honor has really delivered a product that could be a hit, at least in China, since the Honor 4 Play Pro is only available there for the moment, with plans to migrate to India soon. Domestically in China, 850M people have smartphones according to Newzoo. Almost 60% of the Chinese population is equipped. With an average smartphone replacement/update rate of 1.5-2 years, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration if a small fraction, less than 1%, of the smartphone users updated to this model or if new users bought it. Then we can imagine that this phone, with its added body temperature measurement functionality, could ship in the million units range.
Huawei/Honor here follows an excellent strategy. It is making an agile move to integrate the added temperature measurement functionality in such a short time. This capitalizes on the current unforeseen situation. It is also offering 5G compatibility in this new smartphone, betting on the 5G megatrend. Finally it is packing everything in a low/mid-range smartphone with flagship characteristics. We wouldn’t be surprised if this smartphone becomes a hit and ships in the millions. To put this in perspective, Huawei shipped 240M smartphones during 2019, including of course the Honor brand. If we imagine that Huawei integrates the IR sensor in a flagship model, or if other integrators follow the lead, then volumes of smartphones with integrated temperature measurement functions would explode to tens of millions of units. This is not too far-fetched in the 1.4 billion unit smartphone market pre-Covid. This extra functionality could appease many users, leading to a slight boost of the smartphone market that in 2020 is suffering.
The question however, remains: Is consumerization of thermal imaging/sensing technology imminent? We would dare to answer yes, but only when it’s a simple sensing function, if only temperature is read, for example from the forehead, using a cheap, robust and qualified IR detector. Thermopile technology could work just fine. This wouldn’t differ much from usual forehead thermometers. It’s just that the measurement guidelines are slightly changed by using a smartphone. On the other hand, thermal imaging would take some time. It’s a matter of educating properly consumers on how to interpret and read a thermal image. People might not be ready yet, and costs for this technology to reach the masses for daily use might still be high. Nevertheless, thermal imaging and sensing technology can surely continue to be, among others, one line of defense against Covid-19, regardless of implementation.
Dimitrios Damianos, PhD joined Yole Développement (Yole) as a Technology and Market Analyst and is working within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division.
Dimitrios is daily working with his team to deliver valuable technology & market reports regarding the imaging industry including photonics & sensors.
After his research on theoretical and experimental quantum optics and laser light generation, Dimitrios pursued a Ph.D. in optical and electrical characterization of dielectric materials on silicon with applications in photovoltaics and image sensors, as well as SOI for microelectronics at Grenoble’s university (France).
In addition, Dimitrios holds a MSc degree in Photonics from the University of Patras (Greece). He has also authored and co-authored several scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.
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