by Chris Woodford. Last updated: August 19, 2020.
How many times has someone said to you:
"If you eat all your carrots, you'll be able to see in the dark." If there were any truth in
that, soldiers, sailors, and pilots wouldn't go anywhere without a
carrot stuffed in their pocket. Much more useful on the
battleground are night vision goggles: electronic eyes that boost
weak night-time vision into something many times more powerful. If
you want to fight wars at night or watch wildlife in the twilight,
night vision goggles are the way to go—but how exactly do these
clever bits of kit turn darkness into light? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: Night-vision goggles need to give helicopter
pilots a wide field of vision. Photo courtesy of Eric James,
What kind of night vision do animals use?
Humans are built for living in the daytime and sleeping in the dark.
(the light-sensitive part of our eyes) has cells called cones
seeing colored light) and rods (for
detecting movement and dim
light). We have 20 times more rods than cones (120 million rods and
only 6 million cones), yet we're still not very good at seeing in the
Photo: The armadillo is generally a creature of the night.
Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Other animals are built differently. Creatures that live in the dark
tend to have much bigger pupils (holes in front
of their eyes) to
let in more light. Tarsiers, for example, have enormous eyes relative to
their body size. Like other nocturnal creatures, their retinas
contain many more rods than the human eye. Cats, which also spend
much of their time hunting at night, are among creatures whose eyes
contain a tapetum. This is a natural
mirror that reflects
light back out of the eye. Its job is to bounce the incoming light twice
through the retina so the animal has double the chance to see
things. That's why cats are so good at seeing in the dark—and
why, when you shine at torch at them, their eyes reflect light straight
back like mirrors.
Humans can't use any of these tricks. Our pupils open wider in dim
light, but not wide enough to help us that much at night. Our eyes don't
have enough rods—and we don't have a tapetum. So what can we do
to see at night? We can reach for technology!
How to invent night vision
Photo: A Land Warrior PVS-14 night vision device.
Photo by courtesy of US Army.
Imagine your job is to invent a pair of eyeglasses that will help
people see at
night. It's obvious what you have to do. Light rays will travel into
the glasses at the front, so you must capture them somehow, boost
them in strength, and then fire them into the person's eyes. But how
can you capture and boost light? Binoculars,
even ordinary eyeglasses will bring light to a focus, but they don't
make it any brighter. It's easy to invent a pair of glasses that make
things dimmer: you just coat the lenses with something that absorbs
some of the light—and that's how sunglasses work. But glasses
that make things brighter are a tall order.
Photo: Night vision goggles are an extension of your own vision. Photo by Kenneth R. Hendrix courtesy of
Electricity, on the other hand, is
very easy to boost in
strength. People have
invented all sorts of electrical devices that take in a small
electric current (flow of electricity) at one end and produce a
bigger flow at the other. Something that does this is called an
amplifier. A hearing aid, for example, uses a
component called a transistor to
amplify sounds (increase
their volume) captured by a microphone so that someone hard of hearing can listen to them more
easily. An electric guitar uses a much more powerful amplifier to
turn the plucking sounds the strings make into sounds that can fill a
So here's a way to invent goggles that boost light. What if we turn
the light into electricity, boost the electricity, and then turn the boosted
electricity back into light? That should make the light much brighter
so we can see even at night. This unlikely sounding trick really does
work—and it's how night vision goggles help us to see.
How do night vision goggles work?
Night vision goggles boost a dim, dark scene in a series of simple
- Dim light from a night scene enters the lens at the front. The
light is made of photons (particles of light) of all colors.
- As the photons enter the goggles, they strike a light-sensitive surface called a
photocathode. It's a bit like a very precise
solar panel: it's job is to convert photons into electrons (the tiny,
subatomic particles that carry electricity round a circuit).
- The electrons are amplified by a photomultiplier,
a kind of photoelectric cell.
Each electron entering the photomultiplier results in many
more electrons leaving it.
- The electrons leaving the photomultiplier
hit a phosphor screen, similar to the screen in
an old-fashioned television. As the electrons hit the
phosphor, they create tiny flashes of light.
- Since there are many more photons than originally entered the goggles, the screen makes a
much brighter version of the original scene.
Photo: Artwork by explainthatstuff.com based on the photo
up above, courtesy of US Army.
Please note that this is a generalized illustration of what happens
in night vision goggles; it doesn't represent precisely how
the Land Warrior device shown in the photo actually works.
Artwork: From US Patent 5,737,131: Night vision monocular by Gary L. Palmer, ITT Corporation, April 7, 1998. Courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office (with colors added for clarity).
In reality, as you can see from this patent illustration of a Land Warrior-type night vision monocular designed by Gary Palmer of ITT,
the image-boosting photocathode and photomultiplier—the image intensifier components—represent only the central part of a more complex (but still relatively conventional) optical system. Don't be confused by all the details; I've colored and highlighted a few of the key bits to show how everything fits together. Using the numbers from the artwork and working from left to right: 40 is the objective lens (the lens closest to the object you're looking at); 42 is essentially a focusing mechanism; 50 is the image intensifier unit (corresponding to parts 2,3, and 4 from my simplified artwork above); 54 is a collimator that narrows and aligns the light rays passing through it;
58 and 62 are mirrors; 14 is the eyepiece. At the bottom, 78 is a voltage regulator and 81 is the battery pack.
Why does everything look green through night vision goggles?
Photo: Night-vision goggles have to be kept clean just like ordinary eyeglasses. Here, an electronics worker is cleaning out the photomultiplier (also called an image intensification tube). Photo by Tracey Condi courtesy of U.S. Army.
Even at night, the photons that hit the lens at the front of night vision goggles are carrying light of all colors.
But when they are converted to electrons, there's no way to preserve that information. Effectively,
the incoming, colored light is turned into black and white. Why,
then, don't night vision goggles look black and white? The phosphors
on their screens are deliberately chosen to make green pictures
because our eyes are more sensitive to green light. It's also easier
to look at green screens for long periods than to look at black and
white ones (that's why early computer screens tended to be green).
Hence, night vision goggles have their characteristic, eerie
What if there really is no light?
Night vision goggles like the ones described above are sometimes called image intensifiers, because they
take the tiny amount of light that's available in near darkness and boost it enough for our eyes to see. But sometimes there just isn't
enough light to do this—and image intensifier goggles simply don't work. Suppose, for example, you're a firefighter trying to see if there's anyone trapped inside a smoke-filled building, An image intensifier would be as useless as your own eyes.
Photo: Powerful, thermal-imaging cameras are really helpful to firefighters working in places where dense smoke limits visibility. Photo by Jo Wilbourn courtesy of US Navy.
Photo: An infrared thermal image (thermogram) of a car parked in sunlight: here different colors show different temperatures, with red and yellow hottest and blue coldest. You can see how the inside of the car and its metal bodywork are far hotter than the air outside it. Photo courtesy of US Department of Energy.
The alternative is to use what's called thermal imaging. Instead of looking for the light that objects reflect, we look for the heat they give off instead. Generally, living things moving around in the darkness are going to be hotter than their surroundings; that goes for vehicles and machines too. Hot objects give off infrared radiation, which is a similar kind of energy to light but with a slightly longer wavelength (lower frequency). It's relatively easy to make a camera that picks up infrared radiation and converts it into visible light: it works like a digital camera except that the image detector chip (either a charge-coupled device (CCD) or a CMOS image sensor) responds to infrared instead of visible light; it still produces a visible image on a screen the same way as an ordinary digital camera. Other types of thermal imaging cameras use different colors to indicate objects of different temperature—and they're commonly used to show things like the heat loss from badly insulated buildings.
How does a thermal image sensor work?
Rescue workers and firefighters don't always have free hands to carry things, so not all thermal imaging cameras are handheld. Here's a handy helmet-mounted camera designed especially for those sorts of extreme situations. I've colored most of the main components to make it slightly easier to follow. The infrared camera unit (gray) mounted on the cap of the helmet (yellow) captures a thermal image, which circuits inside (green) decode, amplify, and convert into a form that can drive a traditional display (red). A bendy, articulated cable (blue) carries electrical signals from these circuits to the display, which (in this example) is positioned in front of the wearer's right eye.
Artworks: A thermal camera with helmet mounting. Left: Front view showing how the camera and its eyepiece are attached to the helmet; Right: Exploded view. US Patent 7,369,174: Helmet-mounted thermal imaging system by Jules Olita et al, Sage Technologies, May 6, 2008, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
The main components in the left image are:
- 12 and 12A. Protective helmet and cap (yellow).
- 18. Case for image sensor unit (gray).
- 18A. Opening for camera lens and image sensor (orange).
- 22. Monocular eyepiece display (red).
- 24. Bendy arm carrying cables from to image sensor to display (light blue).
- 44. On/off switch (purple).
The right (exploded) image also shows:
- 36. Infrared camera (yellow).
- 38. Battery (orange).
- 40 and 42. Imaging processing and display circuit boards (green).
How else can we see in the dark?
Planes, ships, and submarines find it easy to find their way around even when there's little or no light
for pilots and captains to steer by. Instead of hungrily hunting for whatever photons they can find, they use a variety of
sophisticated navigation tools and sensors, including
radar (seeing with radio waves),
sonar (sound navigation),
GPS (satellite navigation),
lidar (a kind of laser-based radar).
Self-driving cars use a similar mix of technologies to drive in daylight or at night.
Now you can't really describe these sorts of things as "seeing": they don't take in the full range of what
our own eyes and brains do—from 3D object recognition and color perception to figuring out distances and
much more. But they work well as "eyes on machines" when human eyes don't have enough light to see by.
Find out more
On this website
On other websites
- Infrared energy: NASA has a good simple explanation of infrared light, including the various kinds of thermal imaging and their uses in astronomy.
- Move Over, CMOS: Here Come Snapshots by Quantum Dots by Peter Palomaki and Sean Keuleyan. IEEE Spectrum, February 25, 2020. Quantum dots could improve the quality of image sensors in things like night vision goggles.
- The Taliban Have Gone High-Tech. That Poses a Dilemma for the U.S by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Jawad Sukhany. The New York Times, April 1, 2018. Night vision can give troops a military advantage, but not if it falls into "enemy" hands.
- Night Vision for Self-Driving Cars by Mark Harris. IEEE Spectrum, 18 October 2017. How infrared sensors could help self-driving cars to navigate at night.
- A Sharper Picture for Night Vision by John R. Quain. The New York Times. December 5, 2014. Could night vision windshields and heads-up displays help motorists negotiate their way down darkened highways?
- Graphene Gives You Infrared Vision in a Contact Lens by Dexter Johnson. IEEE Spectrum. March 17, 2014. Graphene can detect infrared radiation, but can't produce much of a current when it does so. This article explores the extra tricks needed to make graphene work in night vision equipment.
- Inside The Freaky World Of Next-Gen Night Vision by Noah Shachtman. Wired, 14 September 2011. A closer look at cutting-edge, military grade ITT goggles.
- Night vision scopes see daylight by Daniel Emery. BBC News, 17 November 2009. Latest developments in military night vision equipment, including a short video showing what things look like through night vision.
Here's a selection of patents that will give you a deeper technical insight.
- US Patent 3,454,773: Binocular night telescope with single image tube by Henricus Wilhelmus Bulthuis, Optische Ind De Oude Delft Nv, July 8, 1969. This one explains the optical system (prisms, lenses, and so on) in a typical night vision device.
- US Patent 3,553,518: Image intensifiers for night vision by Pieter Schagen, Philips Corporation, January 5, 1971. A brief but quite detailed explanation of electron multipliers and image intensifiers, and how phosphor colors are chosen to complement night-adapted vision.
- US Patent 4,463,252: Night vision goggle
system by Thomas M. Brennan and Robert M. Burley, Baird Corporation, July 31, 1984. A typical modern night vision system.
- US Patent 5,737,131: Night vision monocular by Gary L. Palmer, ITT Corporation, April 7, 1998. A detailed technical description of a night vision scope similar to the PVS-14 Land Warrior shown in the photos above.
- US Patent 7,369,174: Helmet-mounted thermal imaging system by Jules Olita et al, Sage Technologies, May 6, 2008. A monocular thermal camera built into a rescue worker's helmet.
- US Patent 3,723,642: Thermal imaging system by Peter Laakmanm, Hughes Aircraft, March 27, 1973. A general outline of a thermal imaging system that scans and produces a picture like a conventional, cathode-ray television.
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