What are the Different Generations of Night Vision Technology?

in Night Vision SystemsFAQ &Thermal Imaging 101

What are the Different Generations of Night Vision Technology? Night vision technology enables you to see objects clearly at night at distances of up to several hundred yards in the absence of any artificial light. People, buildings, vehicles and details of the landscape viewed through a modern night vision system appear almost as if illuminated while the same objects viewed with a naked eye would appear only as indistinct shadows (or won’t be visible at all).


In order to understand how the different generations of night vision work, compare it to a video camera but a very special one, with an extremely high sensitivity to light. All night vision systems provide the viewer with electronically enhanced viewing. When you use a night vision scope, you are not actually viewing the scene before you, but instead you are viewing a video image of that scene. The heart of any night vision system is an image intensifier tube.

There are several different generations of night vision systems available today for combat & surveillanceThe intensifiers are rated as either first, second or third generation. Image intensifier tubes basically consist of a PHOTOCATHODE which converts light images to electron images (these, in turn can be amplified); and a micro channel plate (in the 2nd and 3rd generations), which converts the flow of electrons back to a light image.

The FIRST GENERATION image intensifier tubes, or GEN 1as they are known uses simple grid shaped electrodes to accelerate the electrons through the tube. The SECOND and THIRD GENERATIONS of night vision (GEN 2 and GEN 3) use complex MCP (MICRO CHANNEL PLATES) that not only accelerate the electrons pulled from the photo cathode, but increase their number. This increased charge then causes the phosphors to glow more brightly in response to the light reflected.

As a result one can see more light at the viewing end of a second or third generation tube for a given light level. Second and third generation tubes also generally exceed first generation tubes in their ability to resolve detail, eliminate image distortions and they have longer useful tube life.

Different generations of night vision products are available in variety of forms including, binoculars, hand held viewers, goggles, telescopes and rifle mounted scopes. Some of them are camera and/or video adaptable as well. Sierra Pacific Innovations brings you top superpower night vision technology at discount pricing. For more information, please call Jim Santana at (702) 369-3966 in the Las Vegas area, or toll free at (800) 403-2983.


  • Automatic Brightness Control (ABC) – An electronic feature that automatically reduces voltage to the micro channel plate to keep the image intensifier’s brightness within optimal limits and protect the tube.  As the result of this image would get brighter and then, after a momentary delay, suddenly dim to a constant level during the rapidly changing conditions from low-light to high-light.
  • They can also be dirt or debris between the lenses which should be removed by careful cleaning if the system designed with interchangeable optics.
  • Bright – Source Protection (BSP) – An electronic function that reduces the voltage to the photo cathode when the night vision device is exposed to bright light sources such as room lights or car lights.  BSP protects the image tube from damage and enhances its life; however, it also has the disadvantage of lowering resolution when functioning.
  • Diopter – The unit of measure used to define eye correction or the refractive power of a lens.  Usually adjustments to an optical eyepiece accommodates for differences in individual eyesight.  Usually ranges from +5 to -5.
  • Eye Relief – The distance your eyes must be from the last element of an eyepiece in order to achieve the optimal image.
  • Generation 0 – Typically uses an S-1 photo cathode with peek responses in the blue-green region (with photosensitivity of 60 mA/Im), electrostatic inversion, and electron acceleration to achieve gain.   Consequently, Gen 0 tubes are characterized by the presence of geometric distortion and need for active infrared illumination.
  •  Typically uses an S-20 photo cathode (with photosensitivity of 180 – 200 mA/Im), electrostatic inversion, and electron acceleration to achieve gain.  Consequently, Gen I was the first passive image intensifier.   Gen I is characterized by geometric distortion, weak performance at low light levels, and blooming. Expected lifespan is 1500 hours.
  •  Usually an S-25 (extended red) photo cathode (with photosensitivity of 240 + mA/Im and a micro channel plate to achieve gain).  Can be found with either electrostatic or fiber-optic inversion.  Gen II tubes provide satisfactory performance at low light levels and exhibit low distortion. Expected lifespan is 2500 hours.
  •  Uses gallium-arsenide for the photo cathode and micro channel plate for gain.  The micro channel plate is also coated with an ion barrier film to increase tube life.   Produces more than 800 mA/Im in the 450 to 950 manometer (near infrared) region of the spectrum.  Gen III provides very good to excellent low-light -level performance, long tube life. Expected lifespan is 10,000 hours.
  • Most consumers feel that a night vision device wont last long based on the tube lifespan, but in reality, if a night vision device is being operated for 100 hours per YEAR, then this is considered A LOT of usage. At 100 hours per year a gen 2 device would last for 25 years and a gen 3 device would last 100 years.
  • A metal-coated glass disk that multiplies the electrons produced by the photo cathode.  An MCP is found only in Gen II and Gen III systems.  These devices normally have anywhere from 2 to 6 million holes (or channels) in them.  MCPs eliminate the distortion characteristic of Gen 0 and Gen I systems.  The number of holes in the MCP is a major factor in determining resolution.
  •  The input wavelengths of the intensifier that absorbs light energy and in turn releases energy in the form of an electron image.  The type of material used is a distinguishing characteristic of the different generations of image intensifiers.

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