Just four years ago, Bill Parrish (Dr. William Parrish) and his fledgling engineer team were huddled around a table in the lab at their office in Santa Barbara, CA, engaged in a frenzy of creativity. The team had been busy designing smartphone-connected thermal cameras for more than six months. The challenge: Build a smaller, lighter, smartphone-connected thermal camera priced for commercial and consumer use. This was an intriguing technical challenge that held a much greater significance: By making this high-powered thermal imaging technology accessible to everyone, the Seek Thermal team was going to change the world.
How could a smartphone-connected thermal camera affect so many people? By allowing the world to see the unseen. An unseen world of energy surrounds us. It’s part of everything we touch, see, and feel. This unseen world – specifically, levels of infrared energy, which our eyes can’t detect – provides information that can be highly useful for solving everyday problems. Infrared imaging technology reveals the world of thermal energy, enabling people to detect and visualize heat.
Previously, thermal cameras were used by the select few who could afford them. Modern thermal imaging was developed for military applications around World War II. Thermal sensors – and the cooling apparatuses they required – were so large that transporting them required a missile, tank, or plane. Technology improvements over the next fifty years made thermal devices easier to transport and less expensive. But thermal imaging was still too unwieldy and expensive for widespread adoption.
That same morning, a box containing parts had arrived from their supplier, and Parrish's team sprang into action building a test system. The team was building a thermal camera prototype for a smartphone, an infrared product so ambitious that its goal was nothing less than disrupting the entire world. The Seek Thermal team was taking their groundbreaking idea of turning every smartphone into a high-powered thermal imaging device and turning it into reality. Within hours, they had rigged together their first prototype – and eureka, it worked! As the engineers took turns walking in front of the smartphone-connected thermal camera and taking thermal pictures of their hands and faces, the excitement grew until they could contain it no longer. They knew that by creating a smaller and more affordable smartphone-connected thermal camera, they had taken the first step of a momentous mission that would change the lives of every person on earth. Shouts filled the air, news spread quickly throughout the tiny company, and within minutes a celebration spontaneously erupted. As Parrish recalls, that prototype "wasn't pretty, but it worked. At that moment we knew we were on our way."
Parrish and his team were on their way to producing the world's smallest thermal camera meant for a smartphone. This was, and continues to be, the biggest disruption in thermal imaging history.
Seek Thermal is the brainchild of Parrish and fellow thermal veteran Tim Fitzgibbons. Prior to founding Seek Thermal, the two already had decades of experience and multiple successful companies under their belts.
Parrish began his work in thermal imaging in 1976, at Hughes Aircraft. In 1981, he founded Amber Engineering to focus on commercializing advanced military infrared technology by applying novel engineering and business practices to reduce cost. Amber was acquired by Raytheon in 1992. In 1996, Parrish founded Indigo Systems, which rapidly grew to become the technology leader in commercial infrared technology. Indigo merged with FLIR Systems in January of 2004.
Parallel to Parrish's career development, Fitzgibbons forged a path marked by dramatic advances in military technology – advances later adopted for commercial and consumer use. Working for Rockwell for more than 25 years, Fitzgibbons was centrally involved in the invention and market introduction of liquid crystal flat panel displays and charge-coupled devices (common in cameras and smartphones), later moving on to the development of infrared components. In 1998 and 1999, while he was self-employed, he developed a business plan for a new company, Thermicon, to develop infrared devices for commercial and consumer uses.
The idea behind Thermicon was simple enough in theory: If the way that thermal imaging components were produced could be modernized, then the components could be mass produced, assembly-line style, in high volume at low cost. Making smaller and less-expensive components meant that thermal cameras could be smaller and less expensive, broadening their appeal beyond military, fire and rescue, and law enforcement markets – and into everyday uses.
Thermicon would have to wait, however. True, thermal imaging had decreased in price and increased in accessibility. Amazing advances had already decreased the size and cost of infrared products from the million dollar systems that were installed in missiles in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, the first portable infrared cameras was introduced exclusively for military use at a cost of $300,000. The mid 1980s saw the introduction of infrared cameras for industrial use that cost $200,000. In the early 1990s, the first handheld microbolometer-based cameras came to market. By 2005 these uncooled infrared cameras were smaller, lighter, and much less expensive, at $10,000.
The thermal imaging market had gone through a series of dramatic changes, but the $10,000 price point wasn't enough to trigger widespread adoption.
Parrish and Fitzgibbons joined forces at Indigo Systems in 2000. Commercial demand for Indigo Systems' infrared camera products was so great that the company was named the South Coast Business and Technology Company of the Year in 2001 and recognized as one of Deloitte’s “Fast 50” in 2002 and 2003.
After the sale of Indigo Systems to FLIR in 2004, Parrish and Fitzgibbons continued to work at the company. They shared their ideas for building infrared cameras for commercial and consumer use with management at FLIR, but FLIR was uninterested. In 2006, Parrish and Fitzgibbons left the company to pursue their dream.
In 2011, the pair launched Tyrian Systems, later renamed Seek Thermal. Through agreements with Raytheon and Freescale, they achieved significant cost reductions by mass-producing the microbolometer, the tiny component inside thermal cameras that measures temperature changes in objects. Traditionally, microbolometers were fabricated in small labs. Fitzgibbons believed that producing microbolometers using semiconductor-style foundry production methods (like those used for common computer components such as motherboards, CPUs, and memory) would make the process efficient enough to drive prices further down – from tens of thousands to hundreds of dollars.
As a result, infrared would become ubiquitous, following a similar path to that of GPS technology. Global positioning systems began with exclusive military use, but with advances in device size and cost they became part of the average person's daily life. Once thermal imaging devices could be inexpensively mass-produced, they would become, in Fitzgibbons’ words, "a new set of eyes for the world that expands the senses, allowing people to understand the role that heat plays in our environment."
Seek Thermal's first product, the Seek Compact, went on sale in 2014 on the company website and Amazon.com. Parrish, Fitzgibbons, and most of the rest of the company sat in the "control room" watching real-time reports of web traffic and e-commerce sales on big monitors. "We woke up that morning knowing we had made a great product," Parrish recalls. "As the day progressed, we saw the number of sales rapidly increase, and our excitement built. The room was buzzing, screens were flashing, and phones were ringing. We knew we were on the verge of something special."
That something special is sharing the power of thermal imaging with the world. The company's first two products, the smartphone-attached Compact, designed for grab-and-go use, and the standalone Seek Reveal, have enjoyed critical acclaim. Home-improvement series This Old House named the Seek Compact one of "Best New Home Products" of 2015; Popular Science gave Seek Compact XR a "Best of What's New" nod for 2015, and Field & Stream listed Seek Compact XR in its "Best of the Best" for the 2015–2016 hunting season.
Seek Thermal's Compact and Reveal cameras have rapidly become essential tools for contractors, plumbers, electricians, HVAC professionals, home inspectors, and insurance adjustors because of their ability to detect water damage, electrical shorts, energy leaks, and more. Hunters use thermal imaging to track, scout, and recover game; campers can use it to verify that a campfire is safely extinguished.
Living the Dream
An unseen world of energy surrounds us. It’s part of everything we touch and feel. This unseen world that can’t be visualized by our eyes provides important data and information, useful in solving everyday problems around energy efficiency, safety, outdoors, farming, medical, and situational awareness.
Every day that Bill Parrish, Tim Fitzgibbons, and the talented Seek Thermal team work to bring the power of thermal imaging to everyone, they are living, and sharing, their dream. Their mission is simple: to enable a global population to detect and visualize energy through thermal imaging solutions and devices – on the job and beyond. Parrish says, "Tim and I had a personal vision that thermal imaging would finally become ubiquitous. We're making it happen, and it's like living a dream that we had decades ago."