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Monday, June 16, 2014

Night Vision Gear

Feel free to file this straight under “tacticool.”
Both systems side by side for comparison

I really feel that if you’ve played a night or low light game, at some point the thought crossed your mind that “man this would be better/cooler if I had night vision goggles.”  A tactical light is the cheaper option, plus it can be used offensively.  However tac lights will give away your position and gives your opponent an area to aim at.  That’s not so great.  And really, there is just something about the thought of being hidden in the dark while still being able to see what’s going on.

“Real” night vision equipment is expensive, often starting at $100 for a new monocular viewer.  Seeing as what we do with nerf is basically playing with toys, maybe there is an answer in the toy aisle.  Usually night vision for kids means a pair of glasses or binoculars with an attached flashlight, but there are a few real deal night vision options.  I had the fortune of coming across two of the options and would like to share my impressions with the rest of the community.  For review today with have the Spy Gear Ultimate Night Vision (abbreviated UNV from here on out) monocular and the Spy Net Night Vision Infrared Stealth Binoculars (NVISB).

To begin with, both units share a pro and con.  The plus is that both units offer real deal night vision technology, no chintzy flashlights or red/green lenses here.  They use infrared LEDs to broadcast light invisible to the naked eye and have a camera capable of picking up that part of the spectrum in order to display an image on an internal viewing screen.  Even in complete, utter darkness, you will be able to see, up to about 50 feet.

That noted, they both share a similar downside, this is forced, unchangeable magnification.  Both units are set to a zoom level, with the UNV having a increased level of zoom over the NVISB.  This forced zoom makes both units extremely difficult to use on the move.  Standing still and scanning is ok, you have the time to pause and try and figure out what your looking at (it can be confusing to be faced with a zoomed in view of an object without outside context).  But the magnification, coupled with lack of depth perception makes moving ill advised (case in point, I cut open the bridge of my nose when I ran into a wall trying to navigate some rooms at night using the NVISB.)

Specifics after the jump!


Spy Gear Ultimate Night Vision
This I picked up for full price at Target ($40 USD) since I had some extra money at the time and no new nerf items to spend it on.  The unit comes in two separate pieces, the viewing unit and the battery pack.  These pieces are connected by a thin black cord that is not removable from either side.  The battery pack does have a belt clip on it, but unless you are actually a child, or you clip it to your shirt, the short cord length makes the clip all but impossible to use.  The battery back can also attach to the viewer directly by use of a rail system which does make carrying and using the system easier.  These rails can also be used to attach the unit to a head mount (which was included in the box) for hands free use.  This viewer was designed specifically the right eye (as opposed to the left).  When using handheld this doesn’t matter too much as you can flip the whole thing upside down, but the head mount cannot be adjusted in that manner.  On the front of the viewer in the middle of the 5 IR led’s is the focusing knob so some fine adjustment is possible in what you’re looking at.  The whole system requires 4 standard AAA batteries to run.  On one side of the viewer is a switch that will turn it on into one of two different operating modes.  The first is a day time mode, which will just use ambient light to view images and provides some color (albeit washed out color.)  The second option is the night vision mode which utilizes the IR LEDs and displays images in greenish hues.

My impressions of this aren’t entirely favorable, especially now that I have something to compare it to.  The included headset is difficult to adjust and use.  Even when set up properly, it is prone to slipping away from your eye.  And if you manage to keep it in place, the forced zoom makes it strange to use, especially when your other eye is open and your brain is trying to figure out depth perception from two different focal lengths. A couple of nitpicky things too.  The first is that the brightness of the internal display screen is a bit high and can be disorienting when switching from the monocle to unaided sight.  This brightness could also shine upon your face, or nearby objects and give away your position.  Speaking of giving away your position, the IR LEDs glow when the viewer is in “night” mode, and when viewed straight on, could also compromise your location.  Also note that in order to see in the dark, the viewer must be switched to night mode.  You won’t be able to see anything at all without ambient light when it is set to day mode.

It’s not all negative though.  I do like that the unit is small, it could easily be stowed in an average pouch or larger pockets, say in cargo pants or something. Battery life is good, even with only the AAAs powering it.  And as noted above, it is real night vision, so it may be better than nothing if you are in the market.

Spy Net Night Vision Infrared Stealth Binoculars
This is really why I'm writing the review.  While checking a local Savers I managed to find one of these for only $4 and thought why the hell not.  Even if it was broken, I've spent more on lunches I didn’t enjoy.  Plug some freshly charged AAs (it requires four of them) and bingo, it lives!  The system is a self contained set of binoculars, with an included neck strap.  I found the strap length to be a bit short, but could still fit it over my head and use said strap.  Or the strap could be cut off and replaced with a different strap.  The system uses one central camera (which has a plastic lens cover attached) and two different LED groups placed where the optical lenses would be on standard binoculars. On the top of the system are several switches and adjusters for the controls.  There are two adjustment knobs, one close to the rear (by the eyepieces) that controls the distance between the eyepieces while the front adjustment knob serves to focus the image.  There are three slide switches as well, one for on/off, one that controls the LED intensity and one that cycles through the four available color schemes (Normal, Green, Blue, Red).

After trying this system, I have to say I prefer it over the UNV.  While there is no option for hands free use, it seems better to have a unit is more comfortable in its primary use then add on a poorly executed secondary manner.  The faux binocular vision is less disorienting and the forced zoom is less interfering.  One point I particularly like is that the system can be used in any light condition regardless of what mode it is in.  The previously mentioned intensity switch (which the manual refers to a Long Range/Stealth modes) controls which set of LEDs are used.  The low intensity set (Stealth mode) can be used in day time, but will also make things visible in the dark.  As expected, the visible range is shortened and details aren’t as fine, but you can still see things fairly well.  This set of LEDs are completely invisible, so there is no danger of compromising your location.  The high intensity (Long Range mode) switches over to the second set of LEDs which will allow you to see to the full 50ft, as well as see things that are closer in better detail.  However, like the UNV these LEDs does give off a visible red glow when viewed directly head on.

Night Vision Test Control
The NVISB isn’t all roses however.  The unit is noticeably bigger and somewhat clunky to use.   If carried as a part of a kit, it will probably require it’s own pouch to carry.  You are not fitting this in a pocket!  It also seems to eat through batteries quicker than the UNV, but this makes sense if you are using the high intensity setting.  The different color settings are also pretty useless, as the colored options seems to create more glare and washes images out.  It’s best to leave it on the Normal setting, though unlike the UNV, this mode is almost straight black and white even during daytime use.

In order to try and show what the images from both systems are like, I set up this test.  First I duct taped this Warlock battle axe to the back of the bathroom door (as seen in the image on the right.)  Why the bathroom?  It’s one of the few rooms in the house that could be made almost completely dark during the day.

Night Vision Test - UNV
So here is the image of the axe while viewed from the UNV (sorry about the poor quality pictures).  You can see how much the image is zoomed in, though for a completely dark room you can still make out fairly decent detail.

To compare, this is an image with the NVISB.  The zoom is less and good detail is still visible.
Night Vision Test - NVISB

All in all I certainly find the NVISB more useful despite it’s size.  If you can find some on sale or thrifting somewhere, I would say don’t hesitate in picking some up.

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