What are Night Vision Goggles?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Night vision goggles may bring to mind action movies or video games, but they are a real technology operating on scientific principles. Although often used by military organizations, night vision goggles are available to civilians. With these optical devices, a wearer can see up to 200 ft (60.9 m) away on a moonless, cloudy night.

Hunters may use night vision goggles to spot prey early in the morning.
Hunters may use night vision goggles to spot prey early in the morning.

Night vision goggles use one of two methods to enhance sight. Image enhancement concentrates particles of light too small or too low in the color spectrum for a human to pick up on. One of the benefits to image enhancement is that it allows easy identification of a target, which thermal imaging may not. Thermal imaging is able to capture the heat of an object, which appears as bright colors, the warmer it is. Thermal imaging is useful if you are looking for humans or animals, as non-breathing material such as trees and rocks does not show up very well.

The green tint that night vision images appear in is a result of image enhancement technology. As the images pass through the lenses of the night vision goggles, they reach a screen coated in phosphors, which glow when activated by electrons. These phosphors are intentionally tinted green, as the human eye can identify and differentiate between green shades better than any other color.

The first night vision goggles were invented by the United States Army for use in World War II and the Korean War. The Nazi forces invented a similar technology, but it was used mainly as a tank accessory while the American device was used by snipers. Later versions of the goggles eliminated the need for an infrared illumination source, able to use ambient light instead. The current generation of army-issue goggles is highly advanced, able to magnify light 30,000-50,000 times.

The US Air Force has recently conducted experiments with panoramic night vision goggles, increasing the pilot’s field of view to 95 degrees. Several new experimental devices combine thermal imaging with image enhancement, in an attempt to increase visibility of targets. Some companies have also recently premiered digital night vision with zoom capabilities.

Night vision effects are a favorite device in filmmaking, and frequently appear in movies for their traditional use as military or sniper aids, or for comic effect. Several lists exist on the internet of the various uses of the technology in films. Popular examples include Patriot Games, Cats and Dogs, Black Hawk Down, and Sixteen Candles.

Some countries have laws dictating what form of night vision goggles are allowed for commercial civilian use. Be sure to check the relevant laws in your own country before purchasing night vision equipment. Prices vary widely, depending on the generation of technology used in the goggles. A simple monocular night vision device can cost between $150-$200 US Dollars (USD.) The most advanced binocular versions are quite expensive and can exceed $10,000 USD.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@discographer-- Those night vision glasses that people use for driving have nothing to do with night vision goggles. The former is just yellow tinted glasses that are supposed to make it easier for people to see objects coming in their way. But many eye doctors have said that these don't actually work well and may in fact reduce vision at night.

Night vision goggles on the other hand uses light particles to improve vision at night.


I had always wondered why night vision goggles give green tinted visuals. I had no idea that the human eye can tell apart shades of green better than other colors. Scientists and engineers must have done proper research on various color shades before discovering this and using it for night vision goggles. But it's an excellent idea and obviously works well. Thanks for the information.

I think night vision goggles are very cool and I wish I owned one. But what would I do with it? I certainly wouldn't shell out several thousand dollars for one just to see what it's like to use one.


I thought this was referring to the glasses that are sold for people who are driving at night. They are supposed to make it easier to see the road. People who have trouble seeing in dark use them. I guess they're not real night vision goggles, not like the ones the military uses. But they're referred to by the same name.

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