Understanding the Technology Generations of Night Vision Goggles

You’ve already seen it in video games and Hollywood flicks those grainy green screens of night vision on the lead character who looks like a futuristic cyborg with goggles attached to his head. The reality is night vision goggles are accessible to just about everyone today whether it be for hunting, working at night, disaster and prepper planning, you have options.

Night vision (NV) goggles light up the world around us once darkness falls. They allow us to stare darkness right in the face. Additionally, they allow objects and movements to be clearly visible, making it easier for us to spot activity during nighttime/evening. The majority are also able to magnify/zoom long distance scenes as the wearer stands in a single location.

Shopping for night vision goggles can be tricky as there are different types of technology and features. You need to not only understand the options but what generation of technology is built into the goggles. Levels of the technology used in night vision are referred to as generations. Night vision goggles have four generations in total.

Who Came Up with the classifications?

The classifications were first introduced by US-based vendors through the United States’ government. Other vendors do not abide by them.

Generation 1 (Gen 1)

Night vision goggles that fall in this category are affordable. They offer a very basic of night time viewing capability which is, of course, better than zero-night vision. The gen 1 tech was first introduced in the 60s. That’s when mobile phones were just an idea and a computer was equal to the size of a tiny house. Gen 1 night vision goggles are useful for several applications but definitely have their limitations.

For instance, Gen 1 NV goggles:

  • Have a range of 75 yards (maximum) based on the conditions at night. A Gen 3 goggle, on the other hand, can extend the viewer’s range to several hundred yards (even in low light conditions).
  • Comes with noise/static buffer in the vision, meaning that whatever a person sees after wearing the goggles comes with noise or static disturbance. Also, the images are lower in resolution and might not be bright in some instances.
  • Doesn’t have the ability to function passively i.e. it depends on IR illuminators (built-in) that are always active.
  • The images are distorted image on the outer edges thus reducing by one third the field of view.
  • Have a short battery life. (lasts up to 1500 hours on average)

Moreover, the versatility of Gen 1 monoculars is quite lower compared to other generations, meaning it doesn’t have the capability of weapon mounting and is unable to adapt to rifle scopes.

To summarize, Gen 1 night vision goggles are a great pick for budget-conscious buyers with basic needs.

Generation 2 (Gen 2)

Gen 2 is a big step up from the Gen 1 NV goggles. Its performance is somewhat closer to that of Gen 3’s. It offers a much longer range, covering up to 200 yards based on the goggle’s model. The images too are cleaner, brighter, and of higher resolution. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily need IR illumination, as it comes with the ability to function passively.

What is the IR illumination?

The human eye can identify lighting between a specific range. When lighting surpasses that frequency, it is referred to as ultraviolet light. If the frequency is less than the typical range, it is known as “infrared” light. IR illuminators work to make this infrared light, which isn’t visible to the naked eye.

Besides all that, Gen 2 night vision goggles can last up to 3x longer than Gen 1 models, implying that they can last between 4500-6000 hours. They also:

  • Are less at risk of blooming (loss of a specific or multiple parts of the night vision image when a bright source of light overloads the intensifier tube).
  • Are less prone to image distortion
  • Have more versatility because of greater adaptability and durability – come with a headlamp, are rugged in nature, etc.

Basically, if you can buy the Gen 2 NV goggles, go for it. The only caveat is that you might be confused whether to go up to for Gen 3 or stay with Gen 2. Either way, Gen 2 is the ideal path to entering the big leagues of night optics.

Generation 3 (Gen 3)

Among all the NV Gens out there, Gen 3 is the gold standard. Many levels and grades of Gen 3 exist, and they all deliver excellent performance. Advanced Gen3 models feature autogated picture tubes that bring with them superior capabilities for lighted environments like in urban surroundings or where artificial lighting is present, like near houselights, flashlights and more.

Other advantages of Gen 3 night vision goggles are as follows:

  • Clean, bright and high-resolution images
  • Range up to 300 yards based on the conditions and model
  • Hand select tubes (vacuum tube gadget for improving the light’s intensity to allow for usage in low lighting environments) available for some models  –
  • Good performance even in low-lighting
  • Ability to operate “passively” – functioning without covert operation or IR illumination, meaning that it doesn’t need infrared lighting to generate high-quality visuals.  
  • Reduced “blooming” – automated tubes enable function in all kinds of lighting
  • Versatility because of good performance when using camera adapters, scopes, magnificent lenses, or similar accessories
  • Good durability/reliability and more than 10,000 hours of life expectancy

Gen 3 offers industry-leading performance, with an autogated tube that offers state-of-the-art technology. It can last for a long period with good care and is used by the likes of Special Forces and US Military.

Generation 4 (Gen 4)

This can be tricky to define as there is not an actual classification of Gen 4, per the US Army. When it first becomes available it was classified as Gen 4 technology by the US army. However, after analyzing the Gen 4’s reliability and life span, the Army stated that it didn’t fulfill all of their requirements and thus labeled it as Gen 4 technology.

Today, some night vision goggle vendors term “Gen 4” as the best image. Technologies that are on par with Gen 4 are called “Filmless Gen 3” and “Unfilmed”. This is what many people in the military are using, and now it’s categorized as “Gen 3”, but it comes with good performance and the same Filmless capability, with Gen 3’s reliability. Hand selected Gen 3 or Gen 3 Unfilmed models are one of the best (unfilmed comes with better lighting ability than thin filmed models, but are productive in an extreme low lighting environment).

The Bottom Line

Apart from these Gen 1 – Gen 4 technologies, some night vision goggles are also equipped with White Phosphor image tubes. These visuals offer good contrast and look more neutral in specific situations. The technology is present in the Unfilmed as well as in Autogated Gen 3. The solid quality night vision tech is there to fascinate buyers worldwide.