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The Evolution of Night Vision Devices

Night vision devices have evolved considerably in the more than 70 years since they were first introduced, leading to different generations of night optics with an ever increasing performance.

First used during WWII and the Korean War, Generation 0 units project a beam of near-infrared light which reflects off the environment. While they did allow soldiers to see in very low light conditions, because they used an anode and cathode to accelerate the electrons, the images became distorted and the life of the tube wasn’t very long. Their greatest drawback was that because they use active infrared, it allowed soldiers to see the infrared beam projected by other soldiers’ devices.

Dubbed “Starlight“ by the US military, 1st Generation devices, however, have passive infrared technology, using amplified ambient light, from the moon or stars, to produce recognizable scenes. Because they don’t require a source of projected light, these devices allow soldiers to remain hidden. Generation 1 night vision devices use the same image intensifier tube technology as Generation 0 devices so, compared to later models, image distortion and tube life are still a problem.


With improved resolution and performance, 2nd Generation night vision devices feature an improved image-intensifier tube, making them more reliable than previous models and allowing them to work in extremely low light conditions, such as moonless nights. The increase in sensitivity is due to an added microchannel plate to the image-intensifier, which rather than accelerate the electrons, increases their number making the image less distorted and brighter.

Even though 3rd Generation optical devices don’t feature substantial changes in technology, they have a much better resolution and sensitivity, as well as a MCP coated with an iron barrier, increasing the life of the tube.

 Also known as “filmless” or “gated tech”, 4th Generation night vision devices show a significant overall improvement in high and low light environments, with much brighter images and very little, if any, distortions. Thanks to the removal of the iron barrier coating, the signal to noise ratios is enhanced, while an added automatic gated power supply system allows the device to quickly respond to fluctuations in lighting conditions.

The United States Air Force experimented with panoramic night vision goggles to double to user’s field of view. Hopefully, in the very near future, all you’ll have to do is put on a comfortable, regular pair of glasses and acquire the same sharp night vision as an owl.

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