The digital binocular - just a matter of time

by Holger Merlitz

Considering recent advances in digital camera technology, the introduction of a digital binocular appears to be in reach within just a couple of years. Such a binocular would feature a sensor behind the objective and a life view LCD monitor in front of the ocular. Which are the potential benefits of such a device?

1. No prisms any more

The image inversion is done electronically. This would save one of the most delicate and expensive components of contemporary binoculars: The image inversion prism. It has to be designed and polished to highest precision, and in case of a roof design, it does require expensive phase coatings and reflective layers. With the prisms, the main cause of binocular de-collimation is also gone. Calibration can be achieved by shifting the images on the life view monitor.

2. Image stabilization is included

The technology for electronic image stabilization is well established. No need of any movable mechanical parts such as lenses or prisms.

3. Autofocus

Again, the technology is taken over from the digital camera

4. Brightness of image - night vision included

Modern sensors have reached a high degree of sensitivity to allow for a life view image at pretty low light. No need any more of heavy 7x50 binoculars after sunset. Under bright day light, the image brightness can be tuned down to a comfortable intensity.

5. Recording of still image and video

Binoculars coupled with a digital video camera do already exist. A fully digital binocular would naturally include the ability of taking pictures and videos.

6. Compact and light weight wide angle binoculars

It is the prism size which usually serves as the limiting factor for the field of view. With digital binoculars, wider fields are possible with compact and light weight bodies.

7. Digital zoom

The construction of zoom oculars is expensive and generally leads to results which are less than satisfying. At low power, these zoom oculars deliver tiny apparent fields of view, and their resolution is not impressive because of the large number of lenses needed for such a design. Digital zoom would remain limited by the resolution of the sensor, but a range of 2-3 times which is sufficient for hand held binoculars appears quite easily achievable.

8. Electronic distortion control

Different applications of binoculars are asking for varying degrees of distortion (see distortion and globe effect). The study of architecture would benefit from the total elimination of distortion, while horse racing would require a different amount of pincushion distortion than does astronomy. The amount of distortion could easily be tuned electronically, and the binocular would offer various preset 'observation modes' similar to the shooting modes of digital cameras.

In summary, there are plenty of potential benefits of such digital binoculars. The greatest challenge will perhaps be the design of a sufficiently good life view monitor, but progress in this field is rapid and there is reason to believe that within a couple of years these monitors will reach amazing performance levels. The battery weight would not impose any problems, because with the elimination of the prism system, the most heavy component of conventional binoculars is gone. The batteries have to be placed in a way to optimize the balance of the digital binocular. My prediction would be: The first fully digital binocular will be there in about 3 years, and these designs will challenge the conventional high end binoculars within less than 10 years. Realistic, or not?

Update: August 2011

Just 2 years later, and it is almost done:

Sony DEV-3 and DEV-5 Binoculars

Seems the race is on. When will Canon come with its first competitor, and Panasonic, Samsung ...

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Last updated: August 2009