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Night-Vision Goggles

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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 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.

See Predator for the titular alien's mode of vision. Can't see through stuff, either. Compare Vein-o-Vision.

The version most often seen on TV is actually an image intensifier.


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    Comic Books 
  • Batman and his sons, daughter, and extended Batfamily have these built into their masks, great for sneaking around in pitch darkness. Bruce uses this to great effect in the finale of the Knightfall saga when he blinds Jean-Paul Valley with early morning sunlight to get him to remove his cowl and finally cause him to snap out of his psychotic break.
  • Robin Series: Jaeger's goggles have night vision in addition to a Heads-Up Display. Tim also brings the Batfamily night vision lenses to Huntress and Spoiler, before the Batfamily really gets built beyond Bruce, Dick and Tim.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The movie Jurassic Park actually uses starlight-scope goggles correctly. In Jurassic World, another pair of the exact same model is found by Zach and Gray in the ruins of the old Visitor's Center, though they don't use it.
  • Buffalo Bill uses these to stalk his victims in The Film of the Book The 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 NVGs 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.)
    • At the climax he uses them to hunt Clarice Starling in a pitch black house, sneaking up behind her and preparing to kill her with a bullet to the back of the head. Luckily she has had training in dealing with exactly this kind of situation...
  • In Ghostbusters (1984), 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 the parasites that fell off Clover. Hud, who's looking through the camera, yells for everyone to start running now.
  • In Wrongfully Accused, Ryan Harrison is about to be ambushed by Sean Laughrea (who is wearing these to sneak up on him) when Ryan flips on the light switch, blinding Sean. Amusingly, the goggles have a pull-chain to switch them on!
  • A variant is seen in the Terminators' Robo Cam, which is tinted in either red or blue instead of full-color, but the robots see perfectly under any light condition.

  • The Hunger Games: it takes time for Katniss to understand what it was.
  • In Relativity, small-time thief Vera Barracuda gets most of her equipment from the internet. The first time she uses night vision goggles, she's attacked in the middle of a robbery. She has difficulty interpreting the image the goggles give her, so it takes her a few moments to realize her attacker is actually a Mummy.
  • In Daystar and Shadow, the sentries outside the New Christians' citadel wear helmets with infrared goggles at night, complicating Robin's break-in.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Doctor Who: In "The Hungry Earth", the Doctor uses a pair of night-vision sunglasses to identify the mysterious subterranean attackers.
  • In one Farscape episode, John uses a sort of night-vision monocle over one eye, which you would have thought would be impractical due to lack of depth perception. In another episode the crew all uses similar devices in a firefight; Aeryn's breaks down and the fight is over by the time she gets it working.
  • In a 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.
  • 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 night vision 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.
  • The Six Million Dollar Man has a thermal imager in his bionic eye, which he used on occasion starting in the 2nd or 3rd season.
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Common in Warhammer 40,000, 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).
  • Sorcery & Super Science! Post Apocalyptic Role-Playing! One item of pre-collapse equipment available to PCs is night vision goggles that generate infrared light and allow the user to see using it. The wearer has a 45 degree width of vision and can see a maximum of 150 yards in complete darkness.
  • Tales of the Space Princess RPG. While wearing the Super Science device Night Goggles, a character can see in the dark anything within 20 yards. They function for 1 hour before needing to be recharged.
  • Pathfinder has a fantasy equivalent called lenses of darkvision.
  • Shadowrun has light enhancing and thermographic options available for goggles and sunglasses. And also cybereyes that can be given the same enhancements. Though most metahumans already have the natural ability to see into one of those spectrums.

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 
  • In Far Cry 1, 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 nonetheless quite feasible given that Far Cry is clearly 20 Minutes into the Future and such systems are becoming available right now for military use. 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 Video Game/{{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 aggravating 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! Well, unless you forget to also up the gamma levelnote  while in this mode, in which case it's pretty useless.
  • 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: Deadly Shadows, 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 Techno Babble 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:
    • Halo: Combat Evolved 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 anyplace else.
      • Fanmade Custom CampaignSPV3 features VISR as an armour upgrade alongside Sprint and Health Regen.
    • 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.
  • Splinter Cell
    • The 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 an acceptable break for the sake of Rule of Fun: 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 (even having to convince Tom Clancy to let them do it) to avoid having Fisher switching goggles all the time. They were invented about 2 years after the game's release.
    • In addition, later games in the series introduce electromagnetic and movement detection scopes.
    • Double Agent gave players who complete all side objectives an enhanced night vision that can see in color. The technology didn't exist at the time (they were invented about five 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, as 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 - unless it glitches out and stays visible until it fades out, or unless it's a player in multiplayer using a perk to not show up on thermal scopes just because.
  • 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.
  • Metro 2033 features a tunnel-vision inducing set of these, that darkens the edges of the screen when put on and only amplifies ambient light - to see further, Artyom has to turn on his headlamp. Metro: Last Light gets rid of the edge darkening and gives it its own IR light source, making it better suited for stealth; this model is retrofitted into the Redux version of 2033. In both cases, it's a real battery guzzler.
  • 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...
    • The ironically named Dark Visor from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes functions similarly; on top of revealing items and creatures trapped in a transdimensional warp, it also makes darkly lit rooms easier to navigate.
  • Duke Nukem 3D has night-vision goggles as an item that tinted everything green and 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 phosphorescent green. There are also secret messages on the walls (usually hinting at a secret area) which become visible only when viewed through the goggles. Later games got the "starlight scope" functionality right.
  • Elite power armour in F.E.A.R. 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 20 Minutes into the Future.
    • The original Ghost Recon series used standard starlight vision. Future Soldier adds a ''Splinter Cell'-esque combo of night vision and thermal imaging, both goggle-based and as an optional scope attachment for some guns, as well as backscatter X-ray optics for different guns. And then there's magnetic vision, which can only be described as working by way of magic.
  • 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" actually causes Shepard's model to emit light (much like how another player's flashlight will appear from your viewpoint in multiplayer) while a green filter is applied to your viewpoint.
  • Star Wars Droidworks does a similar form when your droid is built with a night vision sensor. It also varies depending on how much light is in the area, going completely white when in a fully lit space.
  • In Prominence, ANNIE unlocks this function in your HUD when you enter a pitch black room after activating her. It shows a simple green filter, and goes white with reduced resolution and an error message if you step into a lit area. Justified since you're actually a robot left behind before the game started.
  • Eating Cateye pills in Fallout: New Vegas ups the gamma and turns everything a pleasing shade of aquanote . Oddly, even though you are walking around in what should be a blinding desert, you actually see better in the daytime if you take Cateye, since the game reduces all of the bloom, though at the cost of being unable to determine different colors. The Friend of the Night perk gives night vision without the blue tint. In the Dead Money DLC, you can make Ghost Sight from Cloud residue, which gives you the vision of Ghost People and has the same effect, except green. The hazmat darklight cowl from Old World Blues (from the same type of Hazmat Suit worn by Ghost People) has an effect similar to Ghost Sight, and the Riot Gear helmets from Lonesome Road have "Sneak Sight" vision when crouched, which is grayscale outdoors and sepia tone indoors. One of the Varmint Rifle's add-on parts is a starlight sniper scope.
  • 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, although the glowing is reduced in later games. Also in the second trilogy, a first-person view through the goggles is shown when aiming a weapon.
  • 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.
  • The first System Shock game includes a pair of Infrared goggles, which show everything in a monochrome filter with zero shadows. The Beserk Combat Booster patch also does a variant on this, making your vision change colors while in effect.
  • 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.
    • There is also one place in the game where you fight enemies who wear night vision goggles. If you turn on the lights, they won't be able to shoot you for a few seconds while they take them off.
  • All games in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. feature these, in two versions: the blurry, green-tinted "image intensifier" ones, found in cheaper suits and helmets, and a more expensive version that turns everything blue without losses in resolution (they're all green in Call of Pripyat, the only difference is the resolution). Graphical enhancement mods more often than not change the better kind of goggles to show an infrared-style black-and-white image.
  • The MechWarrior games typically features image intensifier night vision mode, though some games offer more types or have some sort of spin to it. MechWarrior 2 had Imaging Enhancement, which rendered the world in color-coded wireframe, ostensibly part of the Clan pilot's Brain–Computer Interface. Online has thermal vision and regular night vision. In Living Legends, EMP damage from battlemech reactors Going Critical critical or Particle Projector Cannon blasts will temporarily fry the night vision, forcing pilots to rely on spotlights.
  • A major gameplay mechanic in Outlast is managing the battery life of your camcorder so you can use its night vision setting to see in the game's many pitch-black areas.
  • 7 Days to Die features NVG's as loot, notably from fallen soldiers. They provide a little bit of protection and work indefinitely, but they're not as durable as some other items, so seeing through them makes the screen exceptionally blurry. They're decent for skulking around at night in PvP servers when you don't want a beam to give you away, but otherwise the mining helmet is a far better pick for hands-free lighting.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • 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.


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