When the first wave of COVID-19 struck the United States, a few common objects were suddenly in short supply, such as toilet paper, yeast, disinfecting wipes, and the one tool health officials suggested the public keep handy to screen their own health: thermometers.
The Chinese technology giant Huawei has an intriguing solution: build a thermometer right into your phone. As spotted by Ars Technica, Huawei’s new Honor Play 4 smartphone features an infrared temperature sensor within its rear-facing camera block. So you can hold the $420 phone up to someone’s forehead and check for a fever, just as easily as you might take their photo.
In the wake of COVID-19, infrared thermometers have become the tool du jour in China (even if they are notoriously inaccurate), used to screen people at airports and other public places for symptoms without needing to make contact. For individual users, though, an IR thermometer inside phones is just a good idea that’s part of a long lineage of cramming more and more tools into your pocket.
The smartphone has replaced so many objects already, including cameras, scanners, flashlights, credit cards and money, and GPS navigational systems. It’s not that the smartphone is necessarily the best at doing any of these things compared to what a stand-alone device might do, but it’s always there, never more than an arm’s reach away.
Of course, it doesn’t always make sense to cram more gadgets into a phone. But popular smartphones already use infrared beams; the iPhone uses them as part of its TrueDepth camera system to map your face onto animoji. That doesn’t mean that Apple could simply add temperature sensing with an app or a firmware update, but much of the foundational hardware it would need is already inside. Cupertino wouldn’t have to build the iPhone up from scratch to make this possible.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our collective health is remarkably fragile. Sure, Huawei is capitalizing on this realization by doing what the technology industry is so good at doing—adding more crap to the things you already own so you’re tempted to replace them. But given that smartphones aren’t going anywhere soon, sticking a functional thermometer into them makes a lot of sense. Because it’s not just in the time of COVID-19 that you might find yourself cursing, digging through the medicine cabinet, unable to find where you tucked away that thermometer. And that’s exactly the moment you need a thermometer most.
But for Americans to get such a feature, Apple or Samsung will need to clone it for the U.S. market. Huawei is effectively banned from working with U.S. companies, according to an executive order President Trump issued last year, then extended through next May. So don’t expect the technology to arrive Stateside any time soon.