Being able to see in the dark has many advantages, like stealth mode or never stubbing your toe or banging your knee in the night again. However, the closest we humans are going to get to this superpower is night vision goggles. These already exist, they’ve been around a while, you may be thinking – but scientists have recently developed an ultra-thin film that could be applied to regular glasses to turn them into night vision goggles. Huzzah, night vision goggles for all.
Though still a proof-of-concept, a team of Australian and European scientists has detailed in the journal Advanced Photonics how the transparent film can convert infrared light – normally invisible to the human eye – into visible light. One of the applications of this is that applied to standard lightweight glasses, they could replace current bulky, heavy military-style night-vision goggles.
"We have made the invisible visible," lead researcher Dr Rocio Camacho Morales of the Australian National University, said in a statement. "We've made a very thin film, consisting of nanometre-scale crystals, hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, that can be directly applied to glasses and acts as a filter, allowing you to see in the darkness of the night."
Traditionally, night vision goggles use optoelectronic image enhancement, which picks up tiny amounts of infrared light reflected off objects that we can't see, converting that light into electrons which amplifies the light, and displaying it digitally in that well-known eerie green shade.
The first-of-its-kind film instead is made from a semiconductor, gallium arsenide, which is arranged into an ultra-thin crystalline structure to manipulate light, allowing visible light to pass through it. The film converts the incoming photons of light from infrared light into higher-energy photons that we can see.
"This is the first time anywhere in the world that infrared light has been successfully transformed into visible images in an ultra-thin screen," study co-author Professor Dragomir Neshev said. "It's a really exciting development and one that we know will change the landscape for night vision forever."
According to the researchers, this development will revolutionize night vision technology and its accessibility. Currently used by the military, police, and security guards, heavy night vision goggles can cause chronic neck injuries. Lightweight glasses will be easier and safer to use. They also point out the tech is cheap and easy to mass-produce. Infrared imaging has multiple applications, used in autonomous vehicle navigation to food quality checking. Importantly, high-end infrared technology can be sensitive to fluctuations in signal, usually requiring cryogenic freezing to work and is expensive to produce. By using a film rather than a camera and display equipment, the technology works at room temperature, which avoids issues of sensitivity and cost.
Best of all for the casual night vision goggle wearer, if applied to your regular glasses, you could wear them during the day and still see normally – just with added infrared information. It's a step closer to a super power, at least