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Inside the Freaky World of Next-Gen Night Vision

September 16, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
September 14, 2011 by Noah Shachtman
Roanoke, Virginia
-- A pair of buildings on Plantation Drive sits just past the tractor-supply store, right in front of the barn belonging to the local women's college. From the street, the cream-colored structures don't look like much more than typical office buildings; only a wire fence distinguishes them from their neighbors. Inside, however, is a laboratory and fabrication facility where engineers produce one of the U.S. military's most important advantages over its foes: the ability to see in the dark, when others are all but blind.

Night vision technology -- and these buildings -- have been around for more than a half-century. The green-tinged view from inside the goggles is now yawningly familiar. But this ITT Corporation facility doesn't make the rudimentary night-vision gear found in kids' toys or sex tapes. Here, they design and build the military-grade gear. And it can peer further into the dark, with greater fidelity, and under darker conditions, than any civilian equipment. (Sorry, Paris.)

That's not all. The latest generation of ITT's night-vision gear, issued to a relative handful of American forces, comes with thermal sensors inside; that allows troops to detect the heat from an insurgent sniper, even when he's completely camouflaged. The generation after that -- currently under development here -- will send digital maps, mug shots and drone footage to that same night vision eyepiece. In other words, U.S. forces will be able to ambush, apprehend and identify suspected militants -- without the target ever seeing what the hell just happened to him.

The work is sensitive enough that export of the equipment is strictly controlled, and reporters are not ordinarily allowed inside these two buildings.

"People are freaked out that you're here," one ITT executive told me. "You're the first one."

Truth be told, the company didn't exactly open up the place to me, either; I was mostly confined to a lone conference room. But I was able to try out a prototype of their latest night-vision gear before many generals had the chance. And I learned about the mind-meltingly complex manufacturing process that enables troops to "own the night," as the military cliché goes. Here's what I saw.
Cleared Hot
Even in the blackest dark, there are still a few stray photons of light. Night vision works by capturing that light, and amplifying it. But the Hulk-green view provided by this "image intensification," or "i2," can only tell you so much. It can't tell you if there's someone hiding in the tall grass in front of you. It can't say which car in a parking lot full of them has just been driven. It can't find newly dug-up ground or a freshly-fired gun.

So U.S. forces supplement their i2 gear with thermal sensors, which pick up signs of heat. These new eyepieces build the sensors right in. The Enhanced Night Vision Goggles can spot hidden threats -- and keep working even when i2 technology is "blinded" by a sudden flash of light.

In a specialized trailer outside the factory, ITT's Harry Buchanan shows how sensitive the thermal sensor is. He rubs his hands on the wall, then puts them back by his side. Through the eyepiece, I can still see his handprints. Then Buchanan takes his shoes off. Not only do his feet leave similar marks; his shoes continue to glow hot.
Ghosts in the Machine
The goggles' classic "image intensification" sensor is analog. The new thermal sensor is digital, which means it has a bit of latency. In other words, the amber-colored thermal image can lag behind the green i2 one, producing some freaky -- almost spectral -- effects. In this shot, Buchanan and I look into a TV screen, while ITT executive Erik Fox looks on. He moves his hand and head ever so slightly. But it's enough to throw the combined image off -- and make it look like Fox is possessed.

For years, the Army asked for -- and ITT tried to produce -- an all-digital model, to get rid of the ghostly images. They could never get the digital i2 resolution right. "The technology is a lot harder than it seemed," Buchanan says. "It's hard to beat that little analog tube.... I think we're still another eight years away."

In the meantime, the Army has issued about 5,550 of the Enhanced Night Vision Goggles. (And yes, they're called "goggles," even though they only cover one eye; "monogoggle," military "monocle" and a single "goggle" all sounded too goofy to use.) Special forces units, like the Rangers, got 'em first in 2008. Other regular Army units received the rest, starting in 2009.

Now, ITT and three other firms are working on lighter-weight, cheaper-to-manufacture models. Each company could receive up to $260 million and the rights to build 16,720 systems.

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