Lightweight night vision for everyone?


Effective night vision technology, cheap enough to be widely adopted, has long been a Holy Grail for many sectors of the economy.  The military has always been at the forefront of demand, of course, but it would be a boon to many other areas too, such as:

  • Security – police and security guards would be able to see better, homeowners could observe the surroundings of their residence, and those walking in dark areas would be able to see lurking individuals who might be dangerous.
  • Travel – drivers would be better able to see what’s coming, and to identify obstacles (or moving objects like animals that might become obstacles).
  • Disaster relief – emergency workers could toil in near-darkness and still be able to tell what they’re touching or moving.
We keep hearing about promising new technology for that purpose, but it never seems to arrive.  It’s very frustrating.  How many remember this report from 2010?

A University of Florida engineering researcher has crafted a nickel-sized imaging device that uses organic light-emitting diode technology similar to that found in cell phone or laptop screens for night vision. But unlike night vision goggles, which are heavy and expensive, the device is paper-thin, light and inexpensive, making it a possible add-on to cell phone cameras, even eyeglasses, once it is enlarged.

. . .

Conventional night vision goggles or scopes weigh 1 to 2 pounds, with price tags ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Sized for cell phones, So said, his imaging devices weigh just a couple of ounces and would be inexpensive to manufacture because factories could use the same equipment used today to make laptop screens or flat-screen televisions.

So said other applications could include night vision technology for car windshields, or even for standard glasses to use at night.

There’s more at the link.

I remember reading that back in 2010 and getting very excited about it.  The thought of an entire car windscreen as a night vision device was amazing.  One might be able to see deer crossing dozens, or scores, or even hundreds of yards away, giving one time to avoid an accident like the one I had last November.

Trouble is, after those initial reports, that 2010 development seems to have vanished into obscurity.  I’ve never heard anything more about it.  However, yesterday I came across this report from Australia, which sounds very similar.

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) have developed new technology that allows people to see clearly in the dark, revolutionising night-vision.

The first-of-its-kind thin film … is ultra-compact and one day could work on standard glasses.

. . .

“We’ve made a very thin film, consisting of nanometre-scale crystals, hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, that can be directly applied to glasses and acts as a filter, allowing you to see in the darkness of the night.”

The technology is extremely lightweight, cheap and easy to mass produce, making them accessible to everyday users.

Again, more at the link.

That does sound very useful . . . but it also sounds almost identical to what the University of Florida announced eleven years ago.  Are they similar technologies?  If so, will the Australian development be successfully commercialized, or disappear into obscurity as well?  Why?  Why not?  I have lots of questions, but there don’t appear to be any publicly available answers.

Can any reader with greater knowledge of the field tell us why these inventions or developments have not been more widely adopted in the commercial world?  There must be a reason or reasons, ranging from being too far in advance of current technology to be manufactured economically, to security reasons for not making night vision more widely available, to just plain incompetence – but we don’t know.  Can anyone enlighten us, please?

While we’re at it, is there any affordable, effective night vision technology that can help most people keep an eye on their surroundings at night?  The primary emphasis is on affordable.  I know there are some cameras that claim to offer night vision, but many of them require that one shine an infrared light on the area being surveyed.  That can be too easily detected by other night vision gear – it’s like a great big flashing light on one’s head saying, “Here I am!”  A passive solution, such as light enhancement or thermal sensing (or a combination of the two) is far more secure, but I don’t know that it’s affordable.  The same applies to night sights on weapons.  Come on, knowledgeable readers, help us out with a comment!



  1. First thing that comes to mind is the military quietly having a word and saying "ahh, perhaps not" and "we don't want this cheap enough for those insurgents to buy".

    I remember a newspaper article on how the UK boffins had discovered a way to make a virtual type of radar from the vertical bounce back of cellular network tower RF transmissions. Very cleaver science and software and all that. The sort of thing that you could detect *all sorts* of planes with. Yup, it soon went down the memory hole.

  2. More like the government does not want regular folk to have access to the tech. I believe this is not uncommon.

  3. How long did it take for cars to receive HUDs?
    How long did it take for flat screens to become commercially available? (the technologies have been around since the 50s!)

    Digital NV devices are getting cheaper, smaller and more powerful every month.

    What the Universities said years ago may have been more marketing than reality.

  4. Not sure I would blame the government. Any thing that revolutionary will have teething pains. You don’t go from lab to mass produce over night.

  5. You can get into Gen 1 night vision for probably $400 or so. Maybe less, I have heard of Cabelas and the like selling things like this for maybe as little as $200.

    Gen 1 (say $300) doesn't perform very well without IR or dim red light illumination. But I wouldn't count it out.
    Gen 3 (I don't know what happened with Gen 2 but Gen 3 is what a lot of people buy) is much more like what you're thinking of with night vision something like what you see soldiers and commandos wearing in the movies. A Gen3 night vision setup like perhaps a PVS-14 will cost several thousand dollars, perhaps $3k to $4k when you include the other bits you need in addition to just the night vision tube.

    Depending on your situation though, you might be able to get a lot of mileage out of a cheap Gen 1 nv thing. For instance, a homeowner who wants to be able to see in the dark into their property or yard, can set up either IR illum or just dim red lights to light up the yard.
    (A very dim light bulb with a bunch of red automotive tape over it will look like a blasting light under even the Gen 1 nv). A lot of home security cameras use the dim red LEDs on the camera for the same reason, you can see them with the bare eye if you really look hard and are looking for it. So you could light up the outside and it would be like daytime under even just the Gen 1 nv device.

    For hunting applications, you probably wouldn't care if you had to use an IR light. If you were fighting in the woods though, that wouldn't do.
    So, you might be able to get into it with Gen 1, if you can make do with the limitations of that. I'm only saying this because it's possible, not that it's recommended.

  6. As much as I enjoy a good conspiracy theory, if enhancing the "signal strength" of a greatly reduced number of photons was easy or cheap, we wouldn't need to spend multiple millions on constantly bigger and better astronomical telescopes to detect further and fainter objects. Does CAT still offer their phone based FLIR camera?

  7. Peter, unless the figured out optical lensing on a miniature scale if you have a low cost ccd receptor for IR light, you still have to focus it for its view. CCDS for cameras dropped in price to make film all but obsolete, but you still need to gather that light in from each direction. For NVG systems you'll still have a good bit of mass for the lens assembly.

    1. Usually a larger fluorite type optical glass used in some higher end telescopes and in some binoculars focused on a ccd chip that is more sensitive to visual and near IR spectrum.

  8. Oh, I'm sure it's real technology, but anything coming from the University of Beijing in Gainesville, FL, well, the ChiComs have it.

    And, no, I'm not exaggerating.

  9. Actually, it is probably just an improved OLED display. However, it still needs optics chalcogenide or germanium and a room temperature microbolometer. Technology already in common use.

  10. Andrew Smith nailed it, mostly.

    The correct answer to why it's not available is that DoD ITARs everything like that, such that you need to sign a non-resale agreement just to purchase it. And the word they have with would-be manufacturers is anything but quiet.

    Which kills the market, and scares companies out of the business. As intended.

    And BTW, "Gen 1" night vision is tantamount to crapola. Don't waste the money; get a good flashlight, which has a lower cost and higher utility.

    @Noveske's Rock,

    They make thermal camouflage: it's called a space blanket.
    They go for about $2.

    Kinda flashy on every other type of EO device though.

    1. As someone who used thermal IR to track people and ID objects like ieds and such, space blankets are only useful for a very short time (<60 seconds) and only if they aren't looking at the area closely. Anything over a minute and you start to get quite a bloom around the edge of the space blanket, and then it starts heating up and turns into a nice square signal.

      While much more unwieldy, the foil bubble wrap (reflectix) keeps it's base temp longer, so for lining a hide it would be more effective. But as far hiding yourself on the move, a canvas drop cloth is more useful for breaking up your shape and heat signature, you end up looking like a bedded down deer

  11. In the year 2010, I met a man who had retired as owner of the largest BMW dealership in the U.S. One of the perks of his retirement was he was given a new car each year. He showed me the printed sheets of the various options available. Nigh vision was one of the options.

    I queried if perhaps it was merely a gimmick, or still in Beta testing. He was absolute in saying that for several years already he had the option installed on his cars and that it worked well in all weather.

    I can think of many applications of a portable NV for the average Joe. Being able to navigate in lo vis would be a tremendous asset.

  12. Wasn’t looking solely for personnel thermal camouflage but also to reduce the engine heat signatures from drones etc. There’s a press release / article on Business Insider 6/26 @ 4:26AM on the latest Israeli entry to the market.

    Space blankets work briefly with low quality thermal imaging. The goal is to blend with the background environment ont be a hot spot (no blanket) or cold spot (blanket). Nothing is “perfect” but space blankets are an old trick that experienced scanners may be familiar with in specific settings

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