Night vision devices (NVD) were developed during WW II and the Korean war, and were first deployed by the U.S. Army. This early technology used active infrared light (IR) and employed an IR illuminator to be attached to the NVD in order to function. The illuminator projected a beam of near-infrared light, similar to the beam of a normal flashlight, onto the object to be viewed. The IR light – which was invisible to the naked eye — reflected off objects and bounced back to the lens of the NVD; providing effective ‘night vision’.
Today’s night vision technology employs a far superior method of passive IR light magnification that does not require a separate light source. This technology can be traced back to the Vietnam War, when the Starlight sniper scope was developed to use passive infrared technology. In plain English, these NVDs used the ambient light provided by the moon and stars to augment the normal amounts of reflected infrared in the environment. This was known as Generation 1 technology. It did not perform well during moonless or cloudy nights.
Major improvements have since resulted in Generation 3 technology, delivering improved high and low light performance with smaller and lighter units. Reduction of background noise and enhancement of the signal-to-noise ratio in current NVD units have resulted in brighter overall night vision and clarity for their users. Today’s NVDs are used by both military and civil aviators and ground personnel and have significantly improved both safety and operational efficiencies.
One person must be recognized as the pioneer of the invention of NVDs. He is William E. Spicer of Stanford University, who co-founded the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL). Spicer is best known as the creator of night vision goggles and some medical imaging devices. He died at the age of 74, leaving a very functional innovation as his legacy.
Today, different countries are developing improved NVDs. New developments include higher resolutions, clearer image focus, and reduced requirements for environmental light aids.