This article was originally published in the New York Times in 2002, as part of a series I did for their ‘Circuits’ section.
Jan. 3, 2002 – BILL MARSH had a problem: Something was eating his cats at night.
”I’ve got a lot of varmints where I live, way out in the country,” said Mr. Marsh, a Lockheed aerospace engineer who lives south of Gilroy, Calif. ”Coyotes, raccoons, foxes, skunks.”
So he got a night vision scope, one of the popular variety available for under $200 from retailers like Service Merchandise, Kmart and Amazon.com. ”I was mostly just curious, trying to determine how bad a problem I had,” Mr. Marsh said. ”The cost was right, and you can see quite well at 100 yards.”
Night vision gear, used for years by the military and law enforcement officials, is increasingly turning up in the backpacks and handbags of ordinary consumers as the devices get cheaper and better, and easier to buy. On top of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 night vision scopes sold annually in the United States, manufacturers like Sony are building limited night vision capabilities into many of their new-model camcorders.
While consumers buy night vision scopes for many uses — including boating, camping, bird-watching, stargazing, hunting and more exotic things like caving and ecotouring — the connecting theme is a primal curiosity about what goes on after dark.
”People like to sit out on their porches and observe animals that come through their yard at night,” said Larry Curfiss, vice president of ITT Industries Night Vision, a leading maker of the devices. ”It’s a pretty neat piece of gear.” He noted that buyers tend to be professional, educated males who live in an area ”with acreage.”
Roger Heinrichs, who lives near Novato, Calif., heads down to the tidal marshes of the San Francisco Bay some nights with his Night Owl night vision scope to watch terns and other birds and an assortment of deer, owls and skunks. ”I just think it’s kind of neat to look at them,” he said. ”The most interesting thing I saw was some guys poaching fish. I thought I also saw a guy breaking into the barn next door.”
In fact, personal and property safety uses have prompted a rise in demand since September. ”There’s more of that ‘build a storm cellar’ security mentality right now,” said Laura Olinger, a spokeswoman for Bushnell, a maker of night vision monoculars and binoculars. Monoculars are more popular with consumers because they cost less and because night vision is better suited for ”spotting” than for extended viewing.
Consumer-friendly design and features have also helped turn night vision scopes from an eccentric purchase into more of a mainstream impulse buy. ”People just want to check the product out,” said Lloyd McCrocklin, who manages a sporting goods store in San Francisco. ”They have a little extra money and they want a little extra toy.” Many of the consumer models with a list price of $350 go on sale at his store on a regular basis for $150.
Image-intensification night vision was invented for the military in the 1950’s and saw its first combat use in the Vietnam War. The under-$500 consumer scopes began appearing in the United States when entrepreneurs began importing them in the early 1990’s from former military factories in Russia, where there was a huge surplus as the cold war ended.
Like the more advanced military scopes, they work on the principle of image intensification, taking a small amount of reflected moonlight or starlight and converting it in a vacuum tube to electrons that are accelerated in an electrically charged field and displayed as an image on a phosphor screen, usually green.
The more advanced scopes, also available to American consumers but restricted from export, offer better visibility by adding a more sensitive vacuum tube and a microchannel plate, a thin, porous semiconducting wafer that multiplies the electrons, enabling longer-distance viewing in lower-light conditions. Prices on these devices have been dropping as well, starting at about $1,000, about a third the level of a few years ago.
A prices have fallen on the low end, the technology at the high end has been improving. ”The military product is 25 to 30 percent better than it was in the gulf war, smaller and more powerful,” said Mr. Curfiss, the ITT Industries Night Vision vice president.
Another approach to night vision technology called thermal imaging is being used by the military and may evolve into the next generation of night vision equipment. By sensing heat patterns, the devices allow a user to see through smoke and fog, night or day. Two years ago Cadillac introduced a $2,250 thermal-based night vision safety option on some of its DeVille models, enabling drivers to see well beyond their headlights and giving them more time to react to a deer in the road or an intruder lurking in the bushes.
A third night vision technology, increasingly found on digital video cameras, involves projecting an infrared beam that can be picked up by the videocamera’s CCD (charge-coupled device) sensor. Current CCD sensors can support limited night visibility in a range of 10 feet to 15 feet, compared with 50 yards to 200 yards for image-intensification devices. That is perfect for videotaping sleeping children without turning on the lights, but not good enough to see danger in the woods before it sees you.
”It’s not that you’re worried about getting attacked, but getting sprayed by a skunk is no fun,” said Marty Poles, a salesman for Scope City in San Francisco, which sells image-intensification night vision gear. Mr. Poles, like many who sell the devices, is full of stories about the ways customers use them, from tending illegal drug crops to guarding fish farms to watching levees at night during flood season.
Hunting is one of the more popular uses of night vision scopes, and one of the most controversial. Special-purpose night vision scopes can be purchased ready to mount on a rifle as a gunsight. Night hunting is illegal in many states, with exceptions for specific animals like coyotes. But hunters sometimes go out anyway for ”spotting,” to see where the animals are. ”There’s ethical issues there,” said Ms. Olinger of Bushnell. ”Hunters say they want to find where turkeys roost or the deer are running, but they’re really not supposed to be out there.”
Stargazing is another popular use of the technology. ”You’ll see a million more stars than without a night vision device,” Mr. Curfiss said. Camera adapters are available for many night vision scopes, as are adapters that let you connect night vision devices to telescopes, greatly increasing their magnification power.
And finally, there is nothing like a little night vision outing while on vacation. Some resorts and outfitters offer night excursions, like desert walks or river rafting trips, for groups using the equipment.
”The first word people usually utter is ‘Whoooaaa,’ ” said Darryl Bangert, president of Lakota River Guides of Vail, Colo., which offers night rafting and night jeep tours in the summer. ”It’s pretty wild to watch a train go by at night. And we get to see a lot of beavers. Most people have never seen a beaver.”
And the highlight, he said, ”is just being out at night.”