We’ve all seen night vision before. Perhaps not in person, but we’ve all seen that eerie green tone that comes from a night vision camera. Whether it was on an action film or a reality TV ghost hunting show, that style of film is instantly recognizable. Being able to see in utter darkness is very cool, but it’s also pretty limited technology. If, for example, you needed your night vision to go and cut the red wire on a bomb, you’d pretty much be out of luck. Sure, there would be wires, but they’d all look like shades of grey and green to you. That’s the sort of problem that could get a lot of people killed.
Evolving Night Vision
Some creatures can see just fine in extremely low light conditions. Bats use echolocation to substitute for regular eyesight. Cat’s have highly adaptable pupils that dilate open wider than most creatures to use every bit of available light. Humans, on the other hand, bang their shins on the coffee table that’s been in the same place for a decade if the power goes out. We just aren’t set up to see at night. In fact, our eyes adapt to bright light much faster than a lack of light. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a pirate wearing an eye patch, you’re looking at a secret. Sure, some pirates lost eyes during their sea battles and taking prisoners on land as well. However, it’s not as common as you might think and yet we see eyepatches everywhere. When you laugh at a scene on TV where someone’s eyepatch switches sides, you’re not alone, but the joke is a bit broken. They aren’t there to cover an empty socket. Keeping one eye in the dark leaves, it adjusted so you can go down into a dark hold on a ship without losing your ability to see. Tripping over coils of rope or loose items on the floor can do serious damage. Pirates didn’t exactly have the opportunity to go to sickbay and heal up if they broke an ankle. This ingenious use of a piece of fabric was our first generation night vision, or as close as we could get.
True Night Vision
The first real night vision was invented in England. 1929 was before World War II, but WWI had just ended about ten years prior. A brilliant Hungarian scientist named Kálmán Tihanyi created a camera with the first infrared-sensitive lens. This gave England the ability to spot incoming aircraft at night. It was an unprecedented advance in human technology. By 1935 German electronics maker Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG (AEG) was developing the technology as well. By the time WWII began in 1939, the German Army was testing night vision devices in the field. Nachtjäger, along with tank-mounted telescope-like devices used to find a path were part of their arsenal. The ability to see at night changed warfare as we know it. The Nachtjäger or Night Hunters were aircraft that could see in circumstances other planes could not. Doubtless, they helped Greman forces attempt world-domination. Sadly it was these sorts of technological leaps that almost allowed Hitler to succeed.
US Tech Generations 0-3
Generation Zero night-vision technology relied on ambient light. It amplified what was already there and used additional light sources to bring a more unobstructed view. Gen-0 is also used to refer to the early German night vision technology that America built on to create its own first iteration. The M1 and M3 Sniper/Snooperscopes were the first American night vision technology. They were introduced during WWII. There was an earlier form also called Gen 0. It required the presence of moonlight to amplify and lacked the infrared sensors that marked the first real night vision technology. To improve the clarity and field of vision, the second generation introduced a micro-channel plate (MCP) with an S-25 photocathode. By Gen 3 the photocathodes used gallium arsenide to get better resolution. However, the micro-channel Plates were also coated with an ion barrier. Unfortunately, while this helped the tubes last longer, it also increased the ‘halo’ effect around light sources and decreased the usefulness of the gallium arsenide by letting fewer electrons through.
Modern Night Vision
There weren’t very many improvements to night vision technology for a while, but in 2018, a company called Lorex introduced a leap forward that was unexpected. It was believed that full-color night vision might be impossible. Fortunately, just as so many things in human history that people doubted, we, as a species, managed to create it once the sufficient technology came into play. Until this breakthrough, all night vision cameras in recent years produced pictures in black, grey and white. While the strange green tone was no longer the industry standard, there was no way to get any color into the images. Lorex CNV (Color Night Vision) technology is 4K quality, hi-rez. The cameras do have one small downfall in that they only do the typical black and white if there’s less than one Lux of ambient light. A Lux is about one lumen. A lumen is the amount of light projected on one square meter of a wall if one candle is one meter or about three feet away. That’s a tiny amount of light. If you’ve ever sat in a room lighted by a single candle during a blackout, then you know that from three feet away there’s not a lot of light. Indeed, it’s less than a minimal moonlit night. However, they do function just fine in black and white as well.
Soldiers are now testing the CNV in the field. With the increased visibility in extremely low light conditions, it means soldiers are more capable than ever after dark. In addition to 85,000 times brighter light than before, the technology has a visual ‘noise’ reduction, which helps keep any movement from blurring the images.
Short of perfect full-color images in pitch black, or perhaps realtime 3D, there’s not much further we can take this technology. While it hasn’t been perfected just yet, we’ve come a very long way from firelight and eye patches to increase our ability to see in the dark. With Lorex’ full-color night vision, our future is looking bright even on dark nights.