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A type of artistic license, night vision goggles on TV and in movies are seldom shown correctly.
Modern night vision goggles merely amplify light from wide spectrum with a CCD-based optical sensor. CCD sensors are however highly sensitive to near-visible infrared radiation. This means that normal night vision binoculars will display "infrared" as if it was visible light, and many of them also have an "infrared" lamp fitted, which produces visible light to the wearer of the glasses, but not to the unaugmented human eye.
The confusion comes from the fact that "infrared" is also the spectral range used by thermal imaging. All objects at temperatures found in the earth's biosphere do produce radiation in the infrared, but not necessarily in the frequency range that CCD sensors are sensitive to. The infrared range regular CCD cameras operate in is "near-visible" - An object glowing at 400°C is glowing brightly to someone who uses a CCD camera, but is still pitch black to the human observer, who would only begin to see a red glow at around 450-500°C.
CCD are useless for obtaining a thermal image below a few hundred degrees celsius, so for ordinary thermal imaging applications, other types of sensors are used, which then in addition are frequently (but not always) cooled below environmental temperature, depending on technology.
Confused? Most writers don't figure it out either. Most people don't even understand how incandescent color relates to temperature via Planck's law of black-body radiation.
Ever wondered why the pictures from your webcam has colors that are just slightly off? That's because your webcam uses a CCD sensor too, with a cheap IR-filter. The near-visible infrared light is distorting the colors. Some photographers go as far as filtering out all the visible light for taking beautiful IR photographs.
To give you an idea of the numbers: The visible range of light is 400-700nm, which works out as temperatures from roughly 500° to infinity, with peak visibility at at around 6000°C. "Infrared" ranges from those 700nm to 300'000nm, where microwaves start. The range of "Near-infrared" that CCD are most sensitive in is 700-1000nm (~350-450°). Thermal imaging usually operates at 9000-14000nm because this is the peak radiation spectrum of the human body at 37°C.
What this eventually all works out to is that many games and movies don't quite seem to know how their night vision goggles are supposed to work. Thermal effects and night vision are wildly mixed, confused, or combined into a single device: The background is shown in the glowing green of a starlight scope, with living things shown in false-color orange and yellow. Video games also commonly feature "night vision" in which living beings glow as though they were thermal hotspots and leave a trail of Fluorescent Footprints
for the titular alien's mode of vision
. Can't see through stuff, either
The version most often seen on TV is actually an image intensifier
- This GEICO commercial—giving antelope night vision goggles makes for one hungry lion.
- The movie Jurassic Park actually uses starlight-scope goggles correctly.
- Buffalo Bill uses these to stalk his victims in The Movie of the Book Silence of the Lambs. In an early scene, as he's using them to watch a woman pull into a parking lot, her headlights briefly scan across his face. Not only should this have ruined the goggles, but also blinded him quite painfully, yet he just stands there. (Modern NV Gs are designed to filter this sort of thing, but the goggles available in the era in which the movie is set would not be likely have that feature.)
- Ghostbusters. In the first movie Ray Stantz uses a pair to find Slimer in the hotel ballroom.
- In Cloverfield, the night vision setting of the In-Universe Camera is used to find out what the hell is making those weird noises in the dark subway tunnels they're travelling along. Turns out to be Clovie fleas, and Hilarity Ensues.
- The 1992 Family Channel version of Zorro used a primitive night-vision device in Season 1 Episode 4, a tube that removed all color from what he was viewing to make it easier to pick out contrast.
- Stargate SG-1 made a habit of doing right by these.
- Happens in an episode of Monk. After the city is plagued by reoccurring blackouts Monk who is very much afraid of the dark gets himself some nightvision goggles. During a break in Monk tries to fend of the intruder while wearing the goggles. The lights come on during the process and Monk is oblivious to the fact when he should have been blinded by the sudden illumination. This entire scene is also a Shout Out to the finale to The Silence of the Lambs.
- In the Season 2 Episode of Highlander a "hunter" uses night vision goggles to kill immortals in a completely dark room.
- JAG: Used by the Colombian drug smugglers in 1st season episode "Sightings", and later used by Harm against them.
- In the Colbert Report christmas special A Colbert Christmas, while looking for a bear that's keeping him trapped in his cabin, Stephen dons a pair, before realizing he can't see anything because it's daytime. His response? Put on a pair of shades over the night vision goggles.
- Common in Warhammer 40000, where most power armor has night vision built in, Guardsmen carry NV Gs, Tyranids have enhanced vision and Daemons see peoples souls rather than by any light. None of this helps much in night fighting though...
- GURPS: High-Tech differentiates night vision and thermograph. By the time of Ultra-Tech the night vision du jour is hyperspectral imaging (UV, visible, IR).
- In Far Cry, the nightvision goggles show living things in hypnotic false-color, while the background plants and earth are in blue-green starlight-scope vision — a melding of two completely different technologies.
- Which is none the less quite possibly entirely feasible given that Far Cry is clearly Twenty Minutes into the Future and such systems are becoming available right now for military use, Science Marches On.
- Though technically, they're CryTek goggles which show you CryVision - the devs were quite conscious of the fact that they were not portraying night-vision accurately, and did not actually make any pretense of doing so.
- The Special Forces expansion pack of Battlefield 2 adds these to the player's inventory. Using them around bright lights or when a flash-bang is chucked at you is highly inadvisable though.
- The Project Reality mod implements thermal imaging on the targeting systems of most armored vehicles and some aircraft.
- The Alien vs. Predator games have useful but questionably realistic vision modes for the three types of Player Character. The xenomorph simply puts a halo around living creatures, perhaps to indicate scent and has an alternate mode which makes everything brighter, but also screws with colors and makes it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead; the predator has three modes, including a stereotypical-looking false color IR mode (which only responds to heat from entities, and not from machines or LAVA), an electrical mode which detects machines and xenomorphs, and a "predtech" mode, for detecting predators and their devices; the human marine gets possibly the most aggrevating one, a nightvision system which realistically covers everything in green static and whites out when looking at bright light, but does not actually make anything brighter.
- That last one is pretty common in computer games, among other things. Want to add nightvision to your product? Simply cut the red and blue color channels and, voila. Instant nightvision! You still can't see anything because it's just as dark (or worse, even darker) with it on? Oh well.
- Deus Ex immediately jumps to mind, as there was one item which reduced the size of the viewport, tinted it green without making it any brighter, and vanished after about 90 seconds.
- The upgraded nightvision 'implants' made people and robots glow brightly, and could be used to view people through walls (though the latter was not thermal imaging based).
- In a possibly accidental example, in Thief 3, the protagonist's mechanical eye sees in black and white (despite being in colour in the previous game), which incidentally makes seeing in the dark easier without making anything brighter.
- The first two Metal Gear Solid games featured both types of goggles, reasonably accurately. There was a red, static-washed view of the environment with bright red for hot objects when using the IR scope, and a brightened, greenish-grey view for the "night vision" starlight scope. Alas, they switched to a "Predator-vision" IR scope for the "Special Edition" of Metal Gear Solid 2, and have never gone back.
- That is until MGS4, where they updated to the newer NVG models, with the greyish green scheme. Though it's called "NVG", it actually seems to work by detecting heat, rather than amplifying light, since it works just fine out in the sun.
- In-Game Technobabble states that the Solid Eye's NVG setting is a mixture of several different enhanced vision devices, including light-amplification and infrared.
- There are actual newer Night Vision devices which make use of thermal night vision similar to Snake's solid eye. So it could be that the solid eye's night vision mode is merely one of these. It produces the exact same effect that MGO's ENVG (Enhanced Night Vision Goggles) looks like, so this would make sense.
- Pathways Into Darkness made use of these for a number of unusual puzzles, including nasty rodents that are attracted to your flashlight and an invisible creature which could only be seen in infrared.
- Halo featured a fairly realistic starlight scope on the sniper rifle. Notably, it wasn't part of Master Chief's HUD, and didn't show up any place else.
- Halo: Reach later introduced a helmet-equipped night vision, which interestingly was tinted purple instead of green for the Covenant. Halo 3: ODST also had the VISR, which could function as a sort of night vision.
- The Splinter Cell series gets the starlight-scope 'night vision' mode bang on, but rolls out the false colour images for the 'infra-red' mode. The latter is also strangely inconsistent: it can see through thin walls but windows, objects and sufficient quantities of air are (realistically) opaque. Also, it combines both systems in a single visor, but this can be excused as Acceptable Breaks from Reality.
- Developer commentary indicates that they knew the starlight and infrared scope being put in the same device was not possible by current technological standards, but decided to do it to avoid having Fisher switching goggles all the time. They were invented about 2 years after the games release. In addition, later games in the series introduce electromagnetic and movement detection scopes.
- Splinter Cell Double Agent gave players who complete all side objectives a enhanced night vision that can see in color. The technology didn't exist at the time (they were invented about 5 and a half months after the game was released).
- It's worth noting that each game takes place around two years after the date in which they're released.
- Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare averts this trope by getting both the starlight and infrared types of night vision right. The former as standard night vision goggles and the latter as the sole vision mode when you play as a gunner on a AC-130 gunship.
- The infra-red returns in Modern Warfare 2 in the form of the thermal scope, which is available for all the primary weapons. It's typically used for seeing through smoke screens and picking off snipers.
- Notably, the thermal scope is incorrectly portrayed as well. It often shows up on wintery maps, and fails to consider that through a thermal scope, pretty much everything near the temperature of freezing will be totally dark, for obvious reasons.
- Also, human bodies appear to be the same temperature, a completely uniform white, until they are killed, at which point the body loses all heat and becomes black as the background.
- Resident Evil 4 featured an infrared scope for a rifle which made most of the world dark purple and rendered enemies in yellows and reds. The accuracy of the perceived colors were rather inconsistent; The enormous, boiling furnaces encountered not long after you get it are also dark purple, while breakable (inanimate) item containers were the same reds and yellows as living organisms. On the other hand, torches and lightbulbs are very bright red, and lightning flashes do turn the sky red for brief periods.
- Metroid Prime has the Thermal Visor, which apparently works like an infrared camera using a false-color version of the black-white spectrum (purple is the default ambient color, frozen objects and Ice Beam shots appear black, hot objects show up red through white). It can also see through thin walls and platforms, and unlike the Alien Vs. Predator example above, it actually responds to lava and hot rooms by overloading. The display will stay white until you turn it off for a while.
- Likewise, the X-Ray Visor is a relatively realistic take on a backscatter X-ray camera. Shame about the Power Suit apparently not being radiopaque...
- Duke Nukem 3 D has night-vision goggles as an item. Surprisingly, it's an accurate representation of a starlight scope. How Duke Nukem of all franchises is one of the few that gets this right is anyone's guess.
- The first PC edition certainly didn't. It just tinted everything green. It wasn't useful for navigating in the dark, but it was great for detecting enemies, as it made them stick out like a sore thumb, uh, painted bright green.
- There are also secret messages on the walls (usually hinting at a secret area) which become visible only when viewed through the goggles.
- Elite power armour in FEAR 2 feature a fairly realistic thermal imaging mode, which while not amazingly useful is at least interesting to look at.
- Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter features ENVG like the several examples above, which include a separate thermal imaging mode (can't see through walls). As its name suggests, it's set Twenty Minutes into the Future.
- The original Ghost Recon series used standard starlight vision.
- Averted in Half Life: Opposing Force. When using night vision, the environment has a green hue and poor resolution, but none of the enemies glow or are rendered in unusual colors.
- That's because the so called "night vision" is actually a regular flashlight with a green filter and poorer resolution, this can be seen in the co-op online mode.
- Eating Catseye pills in Fallout New Vegas ups the gamma and turns everything a pleasing shade of aqua. Oddly, even though you are walking around in what should be a blinding desert, you actually see better in the daytime if you take Catseye, since the game reduces all of the bloom.
- Handled believably in Operation Flashpoint, since it tries to be a realistic military simulation. The characters can use real military night vision devices, a.k.a. "noctovizors", which render one's vision in grainy green hue and via a somewhat claustrophobic lens-like shape. The goggles are of course useful for missions set at night time, but even this gets subverted in an interesting fashion : If the visual field gets flooded with light or the night background is illuminated by stars, the goggles become actually less effective than the viewer's own eyes.
- Minecraft has a potion version of night vision goggles. When the potion is consumed, it makes everything you see fully lit as if the sun was shining on it and you don't go blind from bright light sources like torches or lava. However, just because you can see better doesn't mean the dark doesn't exist and monsters can still spawn. Minecraft also has persistent fog, so the night vision makes it more pronounced.
- The night vision in the Syphon Filter games is starlight green with brightly glowing people.
- Subverted in Ghost Squad: The Night-vision and "thermal vision" goggles are different. This fails to explain the fact that all parts of a being are red, including their clothes, while everything else is the same shade of blue.
- Perfect Dark has night-vision goggles in some levels which are somewhat realistic, eg. if the lights come on or you walk out into sunlight you'll be blinded until they're taken off. Human targets still appear a bright, glowing green though, making them much easier to spot.
Truth in Television
- A related bit of a Johnny Bravo episode began with Little Suzie saying, "...but do you really need those night-vision goggles?" Johnny: "Oh yes, and they work exceptionally well in the day time." (he turns on the goggles) "AAAARRGGHH!! I'm blind!"
- The season 3 premier of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic shows Pinkie wearing a pair of "night vision goggles"*... during the day. She quickly crashes into a light post.
- Even scientists aren't exempt from this. A biology professor had David Suzuki following him while he studied grizzly bears. At one point, the professor assisted with the filming of the bears at night with an IR camera. Suzuki, not liking how that looked on TV, replaced it with daytime footage, filtered so that it looked like night time. Needless to say, that was one very peeved biologist.
- Actually this trope isn't entirely a form of not doing the research, as modern armies often use infra red vision to spot enemies emitting large amounts of heat (for example, the exhaust of an engine). However, such a heat seeking sensor is typically linked up to a heavy weapons system designed to take out targets capable of giving off that much heat, so unless your goggles happened to be linked up to a missile launcher or a cannon, this trope still does not reflect reality. Such a heat sensor often also requires being constantly cooled to prevent it interfering with itself, which would make it a tad heavy to put on goggles with today's technology.