The Evolution of Night Vision Technology

By Cherie

Invented in the 1930s, night vision was just one of the many modern innovations brought to life by German inventors. Shortly after the first night vision devices (NVD) were developed, American military scientists began working on their own versions of night vision technology, which made a debut during World War II and later again during the Korean War. Night vision was a massive advancement in wartime technology, but a lot has happened since those early “Generation 0” devices were introduced. Here’s what came next for night vision:

The Evolution of NVD

The first night vision devices relied on illuminators that were big and clunky, making them about the size of a dinner plate. They relied on a large power supply that German soldiers had to carry on their backs. Decades later U.S. military troops were outfitted with starlight scopes in the Vietnam War. This technology used image-intensifying tubes that amplified ambient light from the moon and stars, resulting in electronic images of dark areas. This technology, labeled “Generation 1” is still around today, and is used in consumer-grade night vision accessories.

The generation that followed didn’t rely on moonlight. According to Night Optics USA, third generation NVDs offered increased illumination when there was little or no ambient light. On moonless nights, for example, unlike the “Generation 1” devices that solely relied on ambient light, “Generation 2” still delivered clear images.

“Generation 2” night vision devices—many of which are commonly used today in binoculars, spotters and riflescopes — also offer tactical components such as supergen tubes, improved optics, and top-notch resolution. These NVDs produce a much brighter image than previous NVDs, and the image is less distorted as well.

Today’s Night Vision

Today, “Generation 3” NVDs are used by U.S. military forces. However, not much has changed to make this fourth generation of night vision devices stand out from the previous models. “Generation 3” night vision devices do, however, offer better resolution because their photocathode—the part of the tube that absorbs light energy—is made with gallium arsenide. The microchannel plate (MCP), a metal-coated glass disk that multiplies the electrons and is only found in “Generation 2” and “Generation 3” NVDs, is also coated with an ion barrier, increasing the lifetime of the tube.

A fifth, highly-debated “Generation 4” of NVDs existed and were quite controversial. For a brief period of time, the U.S. military defined a “Generation 4” that operated without a film. The filmless tube improved performance, however, the lack of an ion barrier led to a high failure rate. The military recanted their definition of “Generation 4.” “Generation 3” NVD, now made with a thin film tube, are currently ranked the highest-performing versions yet.

The Future of Night Vision Technology

According to the Military Times, researchers from the University of Michigan are working on creating the first night vision contact lenses that could be used by both civilians and military personnel. Additionally, Outdoor Hub recently reported on a group of scientists who have discovered a way to inject night vision into a person’s eyes with something called Ce6 solution.

We’ve seen rapid improvements over the last 10 years—stay tuned to see what the next generations of night vision technology bring to our future!

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2 Comments

  1. Hmmm..at first glance the “NVCL” seemed awesome, but I wonder about the affects of someone shining a bright light in your face with those right in your eye in a hostile situation.

  2. Capt.Michaels, it hurts, I tried night vision goggles in a tent at night and caught the glare from the headlights of a car and it was a while before I could see clearly again.

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