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The Comprehensive Guide of Night Vision & Night Vision Technology

Think back to 1993. You know every kid sitting in the theater during the premiere of Jurassic Park remembers the T-Rex scene.

However, if you were a techie kid, you probably remember it for more than just the amazing (and literal) breakout moment when the dinosaur tore down the gates.

Yes, we’re talking about the moment Tim discovers the park’s Night Vision goggles in the back of the Jeep.

Night Vision and action movies go hand in hand. Is there a director out there who hasn’t included at least one Night Vision scene in their directorial portfolio?

We, the general consumer, tend to think it’s a military-only weapon (which is why it was so amazing to see in Jurassic Park). The truth is, consumer-grade Night Vision technology has been around for quite some time.

Today, we want to talk about all things Night Vision, from the technology behind it to who invented it to why it’s green and more!

Natural Human Night Vision

Let’s first address the difference between Night Vision the technology and having the ability to see at night.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to be the designated driver at nighttime because the person you’re with says they can’t see after 9 pm. Or, perhaps you are that person who has difficulty seeing at night.

Does this mean you don’t have “Night Vision?”

For reasons we’ll discuss shortly, the human eye is not designed in such a way to naturally have the ability to see at night. Instead, we need visible light to be able to see what’s around us.

For some of us, even street and headlights aren’t enough. We feel blinded by the absence of the sun or in some cases feel the need to have every light on in the house. Why is this?

Well, like we said, the human eye lacks the ability to process images without visible light. Some of us need more than others. Do you remember studying the cones, rods, and pupils in our eyes while you were in high school biology class? Let’s briefly break down the role each of those play in sight.

  • Our cones help us see detail.

It’s how we see all of the nuances around us. Our cones process everything from colors to the structure of objects to depth.

However, our cones also need bright light to function properly. It’s why, in low-light conditions, we have a hard time distinguishing between navy and black.

  • Our rods help us see shapes.

Generally speaking, our rods work better than our cones in low-light situations. Primarily, they help us see black and white and broad stroke detail, such as the general outlines of the objects around us.

  • Our irises allow the light in.

Most of us have had an exam where the doctor dilates our eyes. For the next few hours, everything is brighter. Why?

The less light that’s available, the larger our irises grow to allow as much light as possible in. So when the eye doctor dilates your eyes unnaturally for an exam, normal sunlight effectively blinds you for the next several hours.

If you’re wondering why your Night Vision is so bad, it could be because your irises don’t absorb as much light as others who can see okay at night.

  • Together, these three components are what give us our sight.

It probably goes without saying, but generally speaking without light our eyes just don’t work. Our cones, rods, and irises do not have enough power, so to speak, to fully process what’s around us without a strong source of light.

However, other mammals can see just fine at night. Owls and bats should immediately come to your mind. So why is human Night Vision so bad? It’s simple. God just didn’t biologically build us that way!

So to bring this full circle, Night Vision is the tool that helps us mitigate this “flaw” in the human eye.

But How? What is Night Vision Exactly?

To make it simple, Night Vision is a piece of tech that helps the human eye to see when it normally would not be possible.

Current Night Vision technology can interpret images up to 200 yards away from the user. However, to get a better understanding of what Night Vision is, we think it’s important to understand the two different types of Night Vision first.

Image Intensification

The first is known as image intensification, or sometimes light amplification. In this process, the photons pass through a cathode disc which converts them to electrons. Those electrons then move through the microchannel plate which multiplies (intensifies) them. Finally, they move through a layer of phosphor before hitting the ocular lens.

This style of Night Vision uses whatever light is available to enhance the user’s sight. So for example, let’s say you’re in the middle of a desert. Night Vision goggles will absorb photons from any available light sources, ranging from the moon and stars to the lights in the nearby building windows. It then enhances and presents those images to you.

Thermal Imaging

The second type of Night Vision is known as thermal imaging. It uses the heat emitted by objects, which is registered as light on the upper end of the spectrum. The hotter an object is, such as a human body, the brighter it will appear.

How Does Night Vision work?

In most cases, Night Vision goggles combine these two types of technology in conjunction with something else called active illumination. Active illumination absorbs near infrared light, so when all three are brought together in a pair of goggles, it enables humans to overcome our inability to see at nighttime.

Does this sound super high-tech? Believe it or not, it’s actually based on relatively simple scientific principles!

The History of Night Vision Technology

In fact, Night Vision technology dates all the way back to before World War II. In the 1930s, scientists from different countries began developing the technology for military purposes. This came in handy during World War II to some small extent.

But unfortunately, due to the technological limitations of the time, most of these “Generation Zero” devices proved to be bulky, cumbersome, and most importantly power-hungry. They weren’t as practical or small as what we have today.

Initially, Night Vision devices used cathode ray tubes. If that term feels familiar, well, it’s because at some point most of us have owned a Cathode Ray Tube TV. Many of us grew up thinking they were simply called CRT TVs, but this technology itself dates back to the 1890s! When Night Vision was first developed, it used cathode ray tubes to present the image to the user.

During the war, both U.S. and German scientists worked to improve the current state of these Generation Zero Night Vision devices. The U.S. developed a sniper scope that had an extremely limited battery life and made it impractical for long-term usage during the war.

Near the end of World War II, German scientists developed the ZG 1229 which were deployed in small quantities in 1944 and 1945. German scientists even developed tank-mounted units and used them near the end of the war. However, with the fighting ending in September of that year, their impact on the war was minimal for both the Allies and Axis powers.

Night Vision Generations

Generation 1

Over the next thirty years, technology improved. By the time of the Korean War, the technology was still in its infancy. Primarily, snipers used them in their scopes but that was about it. Infantry units really didn’t use them much at all.

It wasn’t really until the Vietnam War that newer, Generation 1 devices emerged. However, although officially recognized as Gen 1, it might be practically more fair to call Vietnam War era Night Vision technology “Generation .5” for a couple of reasons.

First, the government issued just three Night Vision scopes and one pair of goggles. However, all of these lacked the infrared component used in current Night Vision technology that we mentioned earlier. They were really just a modification of the Generation Zero technology from 30 years earlier.

In addition, photo absorption from moonlight was much more important for these devices than current devices. However, because U.S. troops were fighting in the jungle during Vietnam, moonlight was often unavailable. This basically rendered the devices useless.

These earlier scopes and goggles used passive technology. By passive, we mean they in general couldn’t be used for combat. Their primary use was observation, but the image was known to “fade” in and out.

Another issue with these early Vietnam War devices was noise. They were known to emit a whining sound, creating a potential risk of discovery to the user.

By the way, if you’re interested in a Generation by Generation comparison of Night Vision, EOTech has a great gallery showcasing the image evolution starting with Generation 1 tech.

Generation 2

As the Vietnam War stretched into the 70s, scientists continued to refine them. Thermal imaging technology improved along with advances in infrared capabilities. This eliminated the need for access to moonlight.

Generally speaking, Generation 2 Night Vision technology is what we would consider our consumer-grade options today. As the military has continued to improve and make significant advances with latter generations, much of what you and I can buy today would fall into the mid to late 1970’s era of tech. Some examples of what we can buy include:

  • Night Vision glasses that help with astigmatism
  • Scopes for our hunting rifles
  • Binoculars
  • Security cameras
  • And even handheld cameras

Some companies have branded these consumer grade devices as Generation 2+. This is probably accurate as they are technically more advanced than the military options of 1975 while not quite as powerful as what the military has available to them today.

Generation 3

As technology grows, so do the capabilities of Night Vision gear. While consumers are primarily still using late Generation 2 tech, world military units have moved on to what is commonly referred to as Generation 3.

So what’s the biggest difference? Image resolution and light sensitivity are both significantly improved. This is possible because of the gallium arsenide cathode manufacturers use in newer Night Vision gear.

However, as a downside, power consumption is relatively higher with Generation 3 devices due to these technological advances.

So, how much of an improvement are we talking over Generation 2?

Well, some military goggles can now “see” the equivalent of 30,000 lumens — or, the equivalent of dropping an extremely bright green fishing light into your lake at night. So much more is now visible through the eyewear than just two decades ago with these newer Generation 3 devices.

Generation 4 and the future

However, scientists aren’t stopping there. Developments continue to be made as world armies look to Generation 4 and beyond.

As expected, the current Generation 4 devices have improved the image output in several ways. First, the image has a higher resolution. As with all screens, the resolution simply improves as scientists discover more efficient ways of producing images.

Second, scientists are working hard to reduce noise. This is the fuzziness we see in Night Vision movie shots. They’re able to accomplish this by removing the film ion barrier in the microchannel plate. This is why these are sometimes called “filmless” or “dated” devices. While a gradual process, noise reduction will ultimately greatly contribute to overall improved image clarity.

Thirdly, power requirements are another significant focus with Generation 4 devices. Scientists are developing ways to reduce power requirements based on lighting conditions. This advancement will allow for faster image perception as objects come in and out of focus due to lighting.

But fourth, and most interestingly, advancements are being made in image color output as well.

As a recent example, in September 2019 the U.S. Army began rolling out an Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular, otherwise known as the ENVG-B. It’s estimated that over 10,000 of these devices will be in service by 2021.

However, a big difference between the ENVG-B and traditional Night Vision is the color of the image that is displayed to the solider. The ENVG-B actually shows a white-on-black outlined image instead of the standard green-on-black we’re used to.

Military commanders have seen a remarkable improvement in accuracy with the ENVG-B, although it remains to be seen if they’ll stick with traditional green Night Vision.

Then who invented Night Vision goggles?

So far, we’ve mentioned the American and German scientists who developed Night Vision technology during the 1930s and 1940s. However, it’s important to give credit where credit is due.

As it turns out, we can trace the origin of Night Vision all the way back to 1929. A Hungarian physicist named Kalman Tihanyi discovered a way to “see” infrared light. This discovery eventually gave birth to the Night Vision technology the German and American scientists developed.

However, the Germans actually produced the first pair of Night Vision goggles. A now-defunct German company named Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft invented them in 1935. Typically referred to as AEG, the company was founded in 1883 by Emil Rathenau. Initially, they focused their production efforts exclusively on light bulbs and a few other commercial products.

Eventually, AEG worked closely with the Nazi party in Germany on the development of technology to be used in the war effort. This included the distasteful use of labor from concentration camps which the company later made reparations for.

Night Vision goggles and the military

It’s no secret that the technology we have access to for hunting or home safety today has its roots in the World War II militaries. In fact, we’ve discussed this at length so far. With an initial military application, it’s important to ask a couple of ethical questions about Night Vision, the military, and home use.

Are Night Vision devices illegal?

First, let’s look at some personal ethics. As it turns out, the legality of Night Vision devices is actually a two-sided answer. Generally speaking, Night Vision is legal in the United States. After all, everywhere from Amazon retailers to your local army surplus stores sell some kind of consumer grade Night Vision gear. 3rd and 4th Generation gear, however, is primarily reserved for military use.

While laws change from time to time, there aren’t too many restrictions on what kind of 2nd Generation gear you can buy and how it can be used. The biggest issue surrounds hunting, and we’ll dive into that shortly.

It’s important to realize current United States federal law prohibits most U.S. Night Vision technology from being exported to another country. Export is a loosely defined term that includes both the sale and use of items with Night Vision technology.

For example, this includes crossing into both Canada and Mexico to use goggles while you’re visiting those countries. So be aware of this rule when you’re preparing for a potential customs inspection during your next family vacation!

Now, let’s look at some state-specific laws. We want you to understand that it’s always best to check for updates on local laws. As of the date of this writing, here are a few statutes to be aware of:

  • Alaska: hunters cannot use electronic scopes
  • Colorado: hunters may only use Night Vision scopes on private land
  • Oregon: hunters may not use infrared devices in their activities

So as long as you’re not hunting in the aforementioned states or taking them on your family fishing trip out of the country, you should be okay.

Why does the military use Night Vision?

Military scientists developed Night Vision devices to allow our troops to engage the enemy in a more efficient way. Today, this continues to be the objective. For a few examples:

  • Some servicemen and women use Night Vision for area reconnaissance simply to identify potential trouble spots or points of entry.
  • Others, such as snipers, use them in a combat situation to protect infantry soldiers from hiding enemies.
  • Night ops use various devices while infiltrating enemy strongholds.
  • And even drones are getting in on the action with examples such as the RQ-21 Blackjack used by both the Navy and Marine Corps.

If there was a single word to summarize the military’s various uses of Night Vision tech, it would be safety.

Night Vision helps to keep our men and women in uniform — those who are sacrificing for our freedom — safe from the enemy. To put it another way, their lives can often depend on functioning Night Vision gear.

Is Night Vision ethical?

We feel it’s important to address this question for several reasons. “Ethical” usually refers to something that is outside of morality. So, in light of Night Vision’s primary military purpose (warfare) and its early history (developed by a company in league with the Nazis), is Night Vision ethical?

In our opinion, neither of these reasons should factor into your personal decision to buy any kind of Night Vision gear. First, a product’s history shouldn’t affect its place in society today. Instead, we should recognize it for the benefit it brings to the general public.

Second, and in the case of our military, they are the ones fighting for our freedom. They should have every tool available to them to keep them safe from those who wish to harm them.

Night Vision uses

We’ve covered how the military uses Night Vision extensively, so we won’t rehash any of those uses right now. All we’ll add is that, if it wasn’t for military needs many years ago, consumers most likely wouldn’t have any kind of Night Vision gear today.

That said, let’s take a look at five different ways Night Vision is used both by general consumers and non-military, professional personnel.

Hunting

The first and foremost consumer use case is for hunting. Although really, this is a two-fold use case here. Let’s talk about safety first.

Hunters are often out in the early morning hours and stay until late in the evening. During those times, their safety is incredibly important. Obviously, that’s why they wear brightly colored hunting vests that allow others to see them.

So how can Night Vision factor into safety? By allowing the user to more accurately determine if the movement they see is a deer or a poorly dressed human. It’s unfortunate, but not all hunters wear safety vests. Even more unfortunate are the accidents that result from their inattention to safe practices.

With a Night Vision scope, the infrared component helps hunters see body heat movement and better identify what’s moving around, be it human or otherwise.

Next, the second use is related to the first. Night Vision gear can help a hunter see where to take the shot so they shoot their prey cleanly and accurately. In fact, some hunters even use Night Vision scopes during the daytime! More on this later.

Search and Rescue

While perhaps primarily a military application such as with the Coast Guard, rescue workers also sometimes use Night Vision. This is especially helpful when natural disasters strike residential areas at nighttime.

Alternatively, some rescue operations take place in remote areas such as when a hiker goes missing. Search teams who use Night Vision monoculars or binoculars have a greater chance of success than those who don’t.

Law enforcement

It’s no secret that thieves try to break into homes at night or when people are away. Depending on how fast someone alerts law enforcement, it may be necessary for our men in blue to perform a late-night chase. Night Vision gear, such as scopes and goggles, significantly help them with tracking down criminals.

And believe it or not, despite our increased security protocols, prisoners still try to escape jail sometimes. These attempts usually happen at night. One such example took place near the small town of Lima, Ohio in the mid-2010s. Fortunately though, when equipped with Night Vision gear, these rare (yet serious) incidents can be resolved much more quickly.

Recreation

Is your family a gadget family? Or, are you looking for a unique birthday gift for your significant other? Night Vision gear, such as monoculars, is a great and relatively inexpensive option for a special birthday or holiday gift. There’s just something unbelievably fun about walking through your backyard woods and being able to see at night!

White Night Vision gear

Let’s briefly revisit white Night Vision. We’ve already mentioned the ENVG-B in terms of our military. However, some 2nd Generation consumer gear also comes with a white phosphor option.

Currently, this is less about efficiency or recreation. Rather, the biggest reason for these devices is color preferences. Some people simply prefer white-on-black images. In other cases, colorblind individuals may also prefer to use white Night Vision goggles.

Types of Night Vision Devices & Gadgets

So far, we’ve used a couple of general terms to describe a broad range of Night Vision devices. Now that we’ve talked about the science, history, and future, it’s time to start getting specific. We want to break down the different kinds of Night Vision gadgets.

Glasses

Has anyone ever told you that you have an astigmatism? If not, do you see a star pattern around things like street lights and oncoming cars on a dark highway? If you’ve answered yes to any of this, then you probably have a form of astigmatism.

To help with this, you can actually buy relatively inexpensive glasses that use a basic form of Night Vision technology. All of them have some kind of anti-glare coating, which is pretty normal for sunglasses. Night Vision glasses combine anti-glare coatings with image intensification films to help us see better while driving at night!

Monoculars

Wondering what the difference between monoculars and binoculars are? Monoculars don’t have any magnification in the lenses. Because of this, these handheld units make it easy to switch from normal vision to Night Vision without adjusting your eyes for depth.

Also, consumers can purchase monoculars in both dual and single lens options. Although this can take some getting used to, military commanders sometimes encourage this. In their opinion, it creates better awareness of what is around you. Another advantage to single lens monoculars is that they can allow one of the user’s eyes to rest.

Binoculars

So, if monoculars can come in both single and dual lens options, what’s a binocular? The biggest difference is magnification. Binoculars bring the image closer to your eye through lens zooming. Unfortunately, a significant issue with binoculars is there is really no option to not use at least some kind of magnification. They’re always zoomed in at least a little bit.

Goggles

We’ve talked about Night Visiongoggles quite a bit so far, but just to clarify. Goggles are worn on the user’s head and have functionality that allows them to slide over the eyes. They allow for more accurate depth perception because both eyes are using the unit instead of just one. They’re better for hands-free activities (whereas the user must hold handheld monoculars or binoculars up to the eyes).

As a downside, because they are head-mounted, they also weigh more than binoculars. This can create some discomfort for the user with extended use.

Scopes

Scopes typically come in two varieties: permanently mounted units and removable ones. Manufacturers designed permanently mounted scopes for weapons that will always be used at nighttime. However, most buyers won’t want a fixed solution like this.

Instead, they’re probably hunters who will prefer Night Vision scopes that they can take on and off for daytime vs nighttime use.

A third related option are adapters than attach to the end of your daytime scope. While technically a scope, they’re really more like the add-on camera lens you can add to your smartphone’s camera. They give you Night Vision but aren’t as efficient as a true Night Vision scope.

Security cameras

For years, quality home security systems have had some kind of camera integration. However, the next big advancement in home security cameras that include Night Vision modes. Using built-in timers and sensors, these smart cameras know when to switch from daytime mode to night mode. Like the goggles our military uses, these draw light photons from the moon, stars, and even your security light to keep an eye on the dark parts of your property.

Do you live in the country? Then you’ll definitely want your next security cameras to have a Night Vision mode in them.

Drones

It seems like everyone wants a drone these days! And for good reason too: drones fall squarely in that “recreation” category we mentioned earlier! They’re fun to use and allow us to see the world from an entirely different perspective.

To be clear, a Night Vision drone is referring to the camera(s) on the drone. In fact, tech savvy users can even retrofit existing drones with Night Vision cameras. While they have obvious search and rescue applications, there are some practical ones too such as finding nearby deer.

Smartphone apps

Right away, we want to issue a word of warning to smartphone users. Your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy X doesn’t have built-in Night Vision technology in the same way we’re talking.

If a smartphone app claims to turn your phone camera into a Night Vision camera, and it’s a paid app, read the reviews! It’s far more likely the app developer is simply applying a green, fuzzy filter to your camera lens.

Now, if you do happen to run across a genuine Night Vision smartphone app, send us an email. We want to know about it!

More commonly, you’re going to use Night Vision smartphone apps to control your current devices. As an example, your security camera app probably has a night mode.

However, we do want to acknowledge that newer phones, such as the iPhone 11 Pro, have wonderful night modes. These use image amplification to pull in photos from existing light sources so you can shoot better night shots. They’re not Night Vision per se, but they do help with nighttime photography.

Application of recent technology

Generation 4 Night Vision gear is leaps and bounds better than what we had with the original 1930’s tech. Let’s loop back to the very beginning of this article when we discussed individuals who have difficulty seeing at night.

Premium car manufacturers now offer in-dash Night Vision options! Primarily, these add-ons are limited to higher end Mercedes-Benz and Lexus models. Depending on the car manufacturer, they either use infrared or passive systems. Tying back to our comments on white Night Vision, the Audi A8 has an in-dash passive system that displays a white-on-black image near the speedometer.

What is the significance? And better yet, why is this important?

Well, as with our military, the answer is a single word: safety. Some individuals struggle seeing at night. These in-vehicle options can reduce highway accidents by giving the driver a much needed visual assist.

Can I use Night Visiongoggles during the daylight hours?

Remember the hunters who use Night Vision goggles to hunt during daylight hours? Are they crazy? Well, to answer this we first need to revisit the difference between image intensification and thermal imaging. Remember, traditional Night Vision goggles use both of these to provide us with a complete image.

Thermal imaging detects heat. We usually think of this when we say something can see infrared radiation or heat radiation.

Image intensification uses photos from light to enhance an image.

So during daylight hours, Night Vision can actually help highlight a subject. It might not be as effective as using your goggles in moonlight, but from time to time may give your eyes a boost in specific situations such as hunting.

Night Vision: from military origin to consumer application

Today, we take Night Vision technology for granted. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t really take the time to understand how it started. Its roots in World War II really demonstrate how much of an arms race the Axis and Allies powers were in back then. As with many engineering marvels, the German military-industrial complex is what really gave rise to this amazing piece of technology.

While the technology really stalled between the 1940s and 1970s, by the time of the Gulf War it was a mainstay of modern military campaigns. And as consumers crave more and more unique gadgets, consumer Night Vision gear is now relatively commonplace. Gone are the bulky units from 1935. In their place are sleek devices packed with technology that can take your hunting game to the next level.

Beyond hunters, there are practical applications as well, including search and rescue, automotive enhancements, and law enforcement uses.

In the coming years, it’s reasonable to expect continued refinements in Generation 4 devices and beyond. As our military scientists discover new ways of cleaning up the traditional green image output, our military’s effectiveness will also increase.

Night Vision is a technology that not only serves but also protects!