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CES 2014: A closer look at how smartphone add-ons have got smarter

At CES 2014, if you look past the usual slew of new TVs and laptops, there is one big trend that’s received hardly any coverage: Smartphone add-ons. While the last few years have seen no shortage of smartphone cases and plug-in gadgets that provide additional functionality, it appears that 2014 will take smartphone add-ons to the next level.

At CES 2014, just to name a few, we have seen an add-on that turns your phone into a functional medical tricorder, a case that turns your phone into a 650,000-volt stun gun, and my personal favourite: A case that turns your iPhone 5 or iPhone 5S into a thermal imaging device.

Thermal imaging on a smartphone

Let’s start with the thermal imaging case, because let’s face it: Who doesn’t love thermal imaging? Created by FLIR Systems, the FLIR One is the first consumer-oriented thermal imaging system for a smartphone.

It comes in the form of a smartphone case that fits either the iPhone 5 or 5S, with a planned release date of spring 2014 and target price of “under $350” (£210). Cases that fit certain Android phones (presumably the Galaxy S4) will arrive later in 2014. The FLIR One contains a normal camera, an infrared camera (thermal energy is mostly emitted as infrared), and a battery pack at the bottom. It looks like it attaches to the iPhone via the Lightning Bolt connector.

In practice, output from the FLIR (forward-looking infrared) One looks exactly like the thermal imaging cameras you might have seen on the TV (see the picture above). In theory, you could use the FLIR One to see in the dark, check the quality of your home’s insulation, to play a killer game of hide-and-seek, or to navigate burning smoke-filled house (infrared can penetrate smoke, unlike visible light).

The FLIR One website says you can use it to detect wet areas and leaks before mould develops – or perhaps to spy on animals (or humans?) outside as they move around under the cover of darkness.

Tase would-be smartphone thieves

If the FLIR One lets you spot thieves and ne’er-do-wells from a distance, the Yellow Jacket stun gun case is what you want for close-quarters combat. Priced at $100 (£60), and again just for the iPhone 4/4S/5/5S, the Yellow Jacket is essentially a large case with a built-in battery and two electrodes at the top. When you push a button, 650,000 volts flow across the electrodes, creating a weapon. Apparently the electrodes are sharp enough to penetrate clothing.

If you watch some video reviews, though, it’s clear that the Yellow Jacket is more of deterrent than a disabler; the voltage is enough to sting, but it won’t knock an assailant down like a real taser or stun gun. As a nice aside, though, when you’re not using the Yellow Jacket to shock people, the extra battery doubles up as a reserve battery, doubling your iPhone’s battery life. It sounds like a Galaxy S4 version is planned, but no release date is given.

Of course, do note that if you wish to purchase one of these, many places classify them as a dangerous weapon and owning one could get users in trouble with the law. In the UK, for example, anyone owning a stun gun case would most likely be arrested.

Smartphone self-diagnosis

One of the most exciting applications made possible by smartphones is the tricorder – a portable device (from the Star Trek universe) that’s got so many sensors that it can measure/detect just about anything: Gas leaks, electrical faults, atmospheric pressure, whether someone is lying, cancer, etc. Basically, with enough sensors and software, there’s no reason your smartphone can’t become a tricorder.

Obviously, creating a universal tricorder would be an expensive endeavour, but Scanadu is getting the ball rolling with a specialised medical tricorder. Called the Scout (pictured above), you hold it up to your head, whereupon its sensors can measure your heart rate, respiratory rate, blood-oxygen levels, skin and core temperature, and other important metrics.

As usual, CES 2014 is also home to the usual selection of audio-visual and battery life add-ons. For discerning phone photographers, Izzi showed off its Orbit Pro case (pictured right) for the iPhone 5 and 5S, which allows you to position four different lenses in front of your standard iPhone camera, allowing for macro, fisheye, telescopic, and wide-angle photography.

Beyerdynamic, on the other hand, is catering to audiophiles with its A200p amplifier, which plugs into the USB or Lightning Bolt connector on your phone and hijacks the audio signal – a bit like the USB audio breakout boxes that have been common on the PC for years. Priced at $300 (£180), the A200p is definitely for audiophiles – or perhaps for emergency DJ work.

Now that almost everyone carries a smartphone with decent processing power and PC-like connectivity, it will be very interesting to see how the add-on (peripheral) market develops over the next few years. It’s potentially one of the most lucrative and untapped markets out there – and where there’s money, you can guarantee that innovation will follow. The smartphone add-ons at CES 2014 are just the tip of the iceberg.