STAFFORD, Va. -- It was a dark and stormy night ... well, maybe the storm was more of a threat of lightning looming over the citified, sulfurized horizon.
But it was definitely dark: an inky, solid, utterly flat blackness at an abandoned airstrip just south of Marine HQ at Quantico.
Yet a quarter-mile off I could see what looked to be a whole platoon of tough guys -- maybe eight of them. Two were smoking. A couple were chatting. All looked totally, completely bored mulling around in the middle of the night.
Yet even in the total darkness, I could see them clear as day.
Welcome to the high-tech, straight-out-of-Hollywood world of military-grade night optics. Few people outside the military know it, but regular folks like us can own these marvels of Ghost Rider night vision provided we can foot the bill and, in some cases, tolerate some snooping into our personal lives to prove we're not planning a coup of some sort.
Granted, these systems are preposterously expensive. But if you suffer from acute male-pattern outdoor foolishness, as I do, you will know that seeing well on a dark and stormy night is of utter and complete importance.
"If you have $8,000 to spend on a pair of night binoculars and you and are willing to work through the security clearances, we can definitely work with you," says J. Allen Thornton, a member of the domestic business development team at Sensor Technology Systems, a Beaver Creek, Ohio-based manufacturer of advanced night-vision systems.
The booming night-vision sector is jam-packed with players. Companies like
Infrared Imaging Systems and
Flir tend to specialize in mounted systems that offer night vision and infrared optical capability as part of larger security packages. (Remember those spinning cameras that see at night in action flicks like
? That's what we're talking about here.)
There also are component providers like
Electrophysics, the ISR Systems division of
Goodrich and a slew of Asian makers including
Hitachi Kokusai Electric.
But feeding my see-all-things-at-all-times fantasies are the companies that make portable night optics systems. These are the low-light gadgets that can be worn or carried like binoculars. The players to know here are
Night Optics USA,
Sensor Technology Systems and
iGen. If you've seen any movie featuring the U.S. military doing its thing in some dark jungle or another, these are the thingies hanging off their helmets.
"Basic" night vision scopes in this class, like the
D-300M from Night Optics USA, start at $1,049. But prices rise dramatically depending on features.
And the gear you really want to own -- trust me on this one -- combines different types of low-light imaging technologies to create more lifelike images. One I like, the
NO-PVS 14 M-3A from Night Optics, starts at $3,289 and gets very expensive fast.
I particularly like the
AN/PVS-21 from Sensor Technology Systems (price depends on configuration). The system combines high-quality stereo optics with very good night vision.
The unit both enhances existing light and uses some impressive signal processing to see through flash and fog. Images on this unit are crisp; detail is sharp. And what is most important in optics used in action, depth of field is much, much deeper. I don't get the night-vision headache I often get trying to use these units for hours on end, while sailing offshore or hiking after dark.
And then there's this truly remarkable feature: The unit has a second, concurrent video feed that runs off an outboard small video camera, which in my test I could carry and point where I wanted. So say I needed to look forward and monitor my back at the same time, I could do it.
Now, price is not the only issue with these scopes. They can be ruthlessly finicky to use. Let's just say it is abundantly clear that soldiers do not do the buying of better night vision scopes. Details can be truly absurd.
The AN/PVS-21, for example, has buttons both on the top and the bottom of the unit that require a black-belt degree in gadget jujitsu to even turn on.
And, certainly, sales and support are going to be an issue.
After all, you will be buying from a company that sells hundreds of $8,000 scopes to the Marines. It is a near-certainty that you will be in uncharted territory if something goes wrong.
But you know what, all that is really beside the point. To me, having a unit like the AN/PVS-21-300 on hand completely changes the process of managing risk in outdoor sports at night.
And considering that you are probably into your own personal outdoor jones for something close to six figures -- that cool boat, plane or climbing trip to Mt. Everest ain't free -- spending $8,000 for optics that give you a better chance of surviving to laugh at your mistakes is not such a crazy investment after all.
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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.