Whether on television or in the movies, you’ve probably seen spies or soldiers using special glasses to see in the dark. We call those special glasses night vision goggles and today’s Wonder of the Day takes a closer look at how they work!

If you’re WONDERing whether night vision goggles really work or are just the stuff of movies, the answer is a definite “Yes, they really do work!” The best night vision goggles can help you see a person standing over 200 yards away on a cloudy, moonless night.

So how do they work? That depends upon what type of technology is being used. There are actually two types of technology that can be used, and they’re both very different.

Before we discuss the two types of technology, it’s important to understand something about light. Did you know that not all light is visible? It’s true! The light we can see — called visible light — is only a part of the overall electromagnetic spectrum (all types of light). There are other types of light, such as infrared and ultraviolet light, that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

If you want to see in the dark, there are a couple of ways you can go about it. The first way requires a type of technology called image enhancement. This basically means that equipment takes what is there and makes the most of it.

Even in the darkest of conditions, there are tiny bits of light present. Some of this light may be infrared light that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Night vision goggles using image enhancement technology collect all the available light, including infrared light, and amplify it so that you can easily see what’s going on in the dark.

The other way uses a technology called thermal imaging. If you’re familiar with the word “thermal,” you know that this technology has to do with heat.

Hot objects, including human bodies, emit some heat in the form of infrared light. Night vision goggles using thermal imaging technology capture the infrared light being emitted as heat by objects in the field of view. In this way, you can see an image of what’s going on in the dark based upon the amount of heat being generated by various objects.

Thermal imaging works well when trying to detect people in the dark. It’s also better suited for conditions approaching absolute darkness. Most night vision equipment, however, uses image enhancement technology.

Night vision technology has many uses for the military and law enforcement agencies. For example, it can be used to find people in the dark, as well as for navigation and surveillance. Night vision can also be used for hunting and watching animals after dark.

If you’ve ever seen a night vision image, you’ve probably noticed that it always has a green glow. That’s intentional. When available light is captured and amplified, it’s turned into electronic information that has to be transmitted to the eyes.

In essence, this electronic information is colorless. Why aren’t the pictures black and white then? Night vision goggles are made with screens that produce green pictures, because human eyes are more sensitive to green light and it’s easier to look at green pictures for long periods of time than it is to look at black and white pictures.

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    • Hi there, Christine! We are so glad that you’re WONDERing about night vision goggles with us today! We think there are many uses for this nifty device and one of the best ways to learn about them was through the eyes of a firefighter in training! Thanks for your comment– we are so appreciative that you’ve shared it with all our Wonder Friends today! :)

  1. The night vision goggles we really cool. We could use them if you had a lost pet in the night. You could also use them if you left something outside and needed to find it. Police could use them to find people at night. Night goggles would also be fun to use if you were camping.

    We think tomorrow wonder will be about professional art. Or it may be about a type of art you do with your hands. Maybe art made up of handprints.

    • WOW, what a great list of ideas for using night vision goggles! The students in Ms. Bayko’s class are really succeeding in using their imaginations! We are SUPER excited to learn about all the different uses for night vision goggles with our AWESOME Wonder Friends today!

      Thanks for posting your awesome guesses for tomorrow’s Wonder– we can’t wait to get crafty with you! :)

  2. Wait, so when I see little speckles of light in the dark, is that a problem I need to fix or is that objects giving off light?
    I think tomorrow’s WONDER will be about art.

    • Great question, Emily! We love that you’ve been doing some awesome WONDERing of your own about light! :)

      The little bit of light you can see in the dark are visible types of light– so how you can spread the word that there are two types of light! We are so glad that you’ve shared your comment today– and thanks for posting your AWESOME guess for tomorrow! :)

  3. Wow.. we never knew that night vision goggles could be so helpful for firefighters.

    They help you to see the fire from far away, and that protects them from getting burned.

    They change the night to day!

    I wonder if it is like tunnel vision and do they have a 360 degree view?

    • Isn’t it amazing how the night vision goggles assisted the firefighters? It makes us Wonder about other useful technology that helps professionals succeed in their lines of work!

      Currently, night vision goggles allow users to see better in the dark, but depth perception and scope of vision aren’t great with the goggles. However, we Wonder if the awesome students in Mrs. Brown’s AWESOME Period 3, 5 and 6 classes can do some research on their own– we bet there are technological enhancements in the works!!

      Thanks for sharing your AWESOME comments with us, Wonder Friends! :)

    • Another WONDERful question from those bright students in Mrs. Foster’s class! :) Thanks for commenting today about our night vision goggle Wonder! We bet you can find some great information online or at the library on how these AWESOME goggles are crafted. We would love to hear what you are able to find! Have a great day, Wonder Friends! :)

  4. If we had night vision goggles we would want to use them all of the time because we have always wanted to see what they are like. Our guess for tomorrow is Mona Lisa. Thanks for posting the Wonder of the Day!

    • We WONDER what you would discover in your own backyard with night vision goggles! We think the students in Mrs. Valdez’s 5th Grade class would find some amazing animals in their natural habitats!! Thanks for WONDERing with us and sharing your guess for tomorrow– we can’t wait to find out what kind of artistic things we will be learning about!! :)

  5. Hi Wonderopolis! We loved your video on night vision goggles. We hope to be on wondropolis tomorrow. We think tomorrow’s WONDER of the Day® is going to be on finger painting!!

    • WOHOO! We are so excited to hear you enjoyed exploring the dark with our night vision goggle Wonder, Zoey and Aniela! We can’t wait to Wonder with you as we have fun with art tomorrow! Thanks for visiting today– you two ROCK! :)

  6. I loved this wonder today. It is sooooooooo cool how the night vision goggles use all the available light to see in the dark.

    • You are making us smile ear to ear here at Wonderopolis, Pickle Boy MC! We LOVE that you enjoyed today’s Wonder– there is so much to uncover in the dark using night vision goggles! We hope you continue to Wonder on your own this weekend– we will see you soon! :)

    • You made a great observation about today’s Wonder, Madeline1120MC! In order to best describe how night vision goggles are used, we incorporated the video about how firefighters use the goggles. We are happy to hear you enjoyed learning about their purpose and how they help those brave firefighters do their jobs! Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments today! :)

    • Keep up the SUPER guessing, Tiauna! It doesn’t matter if you correctly guess the next day’s Wonder, as long as you have fun and learn something new!! We WONDER if there was anything exciting or interesting you learned from today’s Wonder about night vision goggles?! :)

      Thanks for sharing your comments and guess with all of us here at Wonderopolis, Tiauna! :)

  7. I have never seen night vision goggles or worn them before, I wonder how they work? Is it really possible that the night goggles make night day? Is there an on or off switch? I’m still WONDERING! :)

    • We are so happy to hear you have been WONDERing about these awesome night vision goggles, Carlos!! The technology is very advanced, and when you wear the goggles, it provides more light even though it’s completely dark outside!! What a cool invention!! Thanks for sharing your AWESOME comments today! :)

  8. I thought today’s wonder of the day was cool because my eyes take a long time to adjust to the darkness and even once they are I can barely see a thing. I hope there are more wonders about night vision gear. :)

    • Hey there Siddman MC! Thanks for sharing your comment about today’s Wonder with us– we really appreciate it! You’re not alone– it’s very difficult to see in the dark without assistance! We WONDER if you can do some more research on your own about different types of night vision gear– it’s really a fascinating idea! Have a WONDERful day! :)

  9. Night vision goggles are helpful in several professions, but a more “normal” job would not utilize these instruments. A person living in the city or suburbs would not need these unless their job required them or if they enjoyed watching raccoons knock over their trashcans in the dark.
    The reason that thermal imaging is used less than image enhancement is because it is difficult to spot nonliving objects with the former.
    I believe tomorrow’s Wonder will be about handprints.

    • Great comment about today’s Wonder, Tori! We think that there are such a variety of professions in the world that it’s WONDERful to learn about new and exciting inventions and technology used in these jobs. You also made a great connection about the use of thermal imaging in night vision technology, too! Thanks for guessing tomorrow’s artsy Wonder!! :)

  10. I thought it was more about firefighters.
    I totally agree with you Christine (MC)! I would like to learn more about ghosts.

    • Hi there, Brighid! Thanks for sharing your comments today about our night vision goggle adventure!! It’s so interesting to learn how night vision goggles are used– we never imagined that fighting fires could be helped by this technology!! Thanks for sharing your AWESOME idea for another Wonder– we might be in store for a ghoul of a Wonder!! :)

  11. I think tomorrow’s wonder will be about famous artists and paintings. I think the video should have more information about the goggles just like in the text.

    • You have a great guess for tomorrow’s Wonder, Ayush– thanks for sharing it with all of us at Wonderopolis! We think it’s pretty cool to learn HOW these goggles are used in certain situations, like when firefighters utilize them, to keep us safe! Thanks for sharing your AWESOME comment with us today! :)

  12. Hi Wonderopolis, I really liked today’s wonder. I’m a really big fan of future projects so this is like a just right wonder. :)

    • How cool, Alex! Thanks for sharing your comment with us today– we are so happy that it was right up your alley! We Wonder what other types of futuristic technology and projects you are interested in! We think it’s AWESOME that you’re doing a great job of WONDERing on your own!! :)

  13. Hi wonderopolis I really like this wonder because I have never learnED so much about night vision goggles. I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s wonder.

    • Thanks for sharing your COOL comment with us, Hockey2399! We love to WONDER about cool technology and how it’s put to use– just like the firefighters demonstrated! Thanks for joining us in our Wonder adventure!! :)

    • That’s great news, Wonder Friend Noah! We think it is awesome to learn all about technology– we can’t see it, but we sure do love it! Thanks for sharing your comment about this bright Wonder! :)

    • We’re glad you’re enjoying the Wonders, Cecilia! Our night-vision goggles Wonder was originally published on August 31, 2012. All our Wonders are written and published by the National Center for Families Learning.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • How do night vision goggles work?
  • What two types of technology are used for night vision goggles?
  • Is all light visible?

Wonder Gallery

soldier_shutterstock_93888088nightvision-nightvision-2nightvision-3Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Recruit a few friends or family members to help you explore one or more of the following activities:

  • Ready for some fun in the dark? You might not have night vision goggles, but there are still plenty of fun things you can do with friends and family members. All you need to enjoy these activities are a flashlight and a sense of adventure!
  • Can you see in the dark? Your immediate response to that question might be, “No! Of course not!” But don’t be so sure! Even in the darkest places, there is often tiny bits of light. Turn off all the lights in your house and just sit in the dark for a while, letting your eyes adjust to the blackness. As the minutes pass by, you’ll probably realize that it doesn’t seem quite so dark any more. What was once pitch black now seems different. You should begin to see the outlines of familiar objects. If you wait long enough and allow your eyes to adjust fully, you’ll probably be surprised by how good your eyes are at using the tiny bits of available light to help you see in the dark!
  • Up for a challenge? If you want to investigate the spectrum of visible light, you need a spectrometer. These can be quite expensive, but did you know that you can build a simple spectrometer with an old compact disc and a few simple materials? It’s true. Jump online and check out the instructions to build your own homemade spectrometer. Then get going! Have fun and enjoy checking out the spectrum of visible light!

Still Wondering

In Science NetLinks’ Sensing the Invisible: The Herschel Experiment lesson, children learn that there is radiation other than visible light being emitted from the Sun.

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