Earlier this week, Google updated the Pixel 8 Pro so that its weird new temperature sensor can finally take readings of the human body. I’m sorry to tell you that, after using it, this feature doesn’t seem any less surprising.
To measure body temperature, you need to move the phone’s infrared temperature sensor to the side of your forehead, just above the temporal artery. So far, nothing too strange here. Just this month, I got to check out Withings BeamO, a 4-in-1 multiscope that also features a single sensor scanning over a single artery to measure your temperature. The difference is that the BeeMo was fairly easy to use, whereas the Pixel 8 Pro was incredibly complicated.
This is because the temperature sensor of the phone is located in the rear camera array. If you’re using it to scan objects this makes total sense (though again, Why?). But if you’re trying to take your own temperature, it’s hard to figure out if you’re doing anything correctly because you can’t actually see the screen. Google includes an instructional video that shows you how close (very close) you need to place it to your forehead and how to tilt it at a slight angle. The phone will try to tell you all this. Once you get close enough, the phone will vibrate when it’s time to swipe the phone towards your temple (without touching it). You can enable sound cues, but you still need to know where to tap and how fast to move. It’s not what I would call intuitive, and you’ll need to try it a few times to understand it.
There’s a reason people use the front-facing camera to take selfies, even though the rear camera takes higher-quality photos. Just from a user experience, it’s best to take someone else’s temperature or, rather, it’s best to take someone else’s temperature while using your phone because it’s awkward to keep other people’s health data going. Yours phone. You have the option to sync your data with the Fitbit app, and it saves any readings from the past week in the native app by default.
Apart from the absurd user experience, accuracy is another question mark. In this screenshot, my colleague Parker Ortolani’s Pixel 8 Pro told him his body temperature was 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Granted, Parker said he just went out for this particular lesson, but it’s bordering on hypothermia. This is also highly unlikely. I also saw Parker taking readings from my arm and palm. He wasn’t supposed to work in any of these areas, but the phone didn’t stop him. (This feature is only calibrated for the forehead, so you shouldn’t rely on results for other body parts.)
To be fair, this is one of the issues with temporal artery temperature readings in general. Although they are quick and generally accurate, they can be easily thrown off by things like direct sunlight, cold environments, or even a sweaty forehead. User error can also affect the readings, and as I mentioned, this is a unique way to measure your body temperature.
To make this feature public, Google says it has received de novo FDA approval. This is the same type that Apple got for the Apple Watch Series 4’s EKG feature, but it mostly means that it’s a low to moderate risk device (also known as generally safe) that has no equivalent yet. Is not equivalent. That said, the phone includes several disclaimers within the temperature app. You can see from these screenshots that Google notes that “temperature readings can vary and are most accurate when done properly.” There are also disclaimers that the readings are “general guidelines only,” and on other screens, the app notes that it cannot diagnose any disease or replace the advice of a healthcare provider.
All this to say, I can’t imagine the average person using this feature. Apparently, this is something Google started building in 2020 and 2021 — a time when restaurants and other public places were scanning people’s temperatures to check for Covid-19. And if it had been at that time, we might have been thinking about this feature in a different way. For better or worse, I can’t remember the last time a restaurant or event venue took my temperature.
You could argue that having it on your phone is just a matter of convenience. If I’m on a plane and feeling a little feverish, I probably won’t have a thermometer. Theoretically, I could then whip out a Pixel 8 Pro and have a fun time using the rear camera and sensors to measure its temperature. Perhaps this is one instance where this would make sense – and yet, a precautionary advice and moving the back of the hand to the forehead would probably suffice.