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About this Article
Written by: Lynn Jane Ho
Written on: July 10th, 2008
Tags: lifestyle, security & defense
Thumbnail by: DefenseLink/U.S. Department of Defense
About the Author
In Spring 2008, Lynn Jane Ho was an undergraduate biomedical engineer at USC and wrote this article while enjoying pizza and gelato in Rome with the 2008 Viterbi Summer Overseas Program.
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Volume X Issue II > Night Vision Goggles: Moving from Military to Modern Day Applications
Night vision devices (NVDs) have allowed humans to easily blend into and exploit an environment that was once only conquered through the use of flashlights and flood lamps. Whether in goggle or binocular form, these devices have given people a significant edge, first in military combat and more recently in surveillance, security, and rescue operations. As NVDs continue to be modified and improved, they have found applications in ocular surgeries and are currently being researched for use in automobiles and pedestrian detection. The history and technology behind NVDs is addressed, as well as modern and future applications.

Introduction

Like many creatures on this planet, we rely strongly on our eyes to interact with our surroundings. Yet, our vision pales in comparison to those of many other species. Among the animals that use their sight for survival, falcons have sharper vision, bees see more colors, and cats excel in the dark. What we lack physically, however, is often compensated through our ability to engineer enhancements to the human body equal to and sometimes exceeding what is available in nature.
DefenseLink/U.S. Department of Defense
Figure 1: A US Navy soldier uses the latest generation Night Vision Device (NVD) mounted to his headgear. NVD's provide a crucial tactical advantage during warfare.
Among these advancements are the night vision devices (NVDs) that have allowed humans to easily blend into and exploit an environment that was once only accessed through the use of flashlights and flood lamps. Whether in goggle or binocular form, these devices have given a significant edge to humans, first in military combat and more recently in surveillance, security, and rescue operations (see Fig. 1). As NVDs continue to be modified and improved, they have even found applications in ocular surgeries and are currently being explored for use in automobiles and pedestrian detection.

A Focus on the History

Before becoming such a widely-used technology, NVDs were originally the military's answer to night combat. In World War I, large, power-guzzling search lights were used to dispel the night, illuminating both enemies and allies, which could often be counter-productive. By World War II, the first crude NVDs, dubbed Generation 0, were developed using lamps with filters that only passed infrared light. Since infrared is invisible to the human eye, soldiers could easily carry and use image converter tubes that changed the infrared light into the visible spectrum and allowed only the users to see in the desired areas [1]. However, this was still an active form of illumination that could be exploited by both sides of the battle and was thus used sparingly.
It was not until the Vietnam War that passive NVDs were developed and widely used. These devices were considered passive because they did not require an external source of infrared illumination but could, instead, amplify any reflected light (both infrared and visible light) from sources like the moon and the stars [2]. The new technology was labeled Generation I and was significantly more effective in terms of covertness in warfare. However, the dependence of Generation I on ambient light was still problematic on moonless or cloudy nights. Through the late 1900s, this issue was addressed and resolved in Generations II and III, both of which focused on magnifying very small amounts of light using an image intensifier tube (instead of an image converter tube) and reliably producing images in higher resolutions. These improved NVDs are still in use today in both military and civilian applications.