Sony tries bringing binoculars into digital age

Binoculars generally remain an all-optical affair, but Sony is bringing image sensors, autofocus, electronic viewfinders, and 3D video recording to the market.

Sony's DEV-5 digital binoculars will go on sale in November for $2,000.
Sony's DEV-5 digital binoculars will go on sale in November for $2,000. Sony Electronics

The digital revolution has swept film cameras almost completely out of the market, but so far it's been a very different story with binoculars.

Optics have improved, electronically-controlled image stabilization has arrived, and a few models with digital image sensors have appeared. But for the most part, binoculars remain the same basic product they were decades ago: a handheld stereo-vision telescope that relies on your brain to record what you see.

Sony hopes to change that with two new digital binoculars it plans to sell starting in November, the $1,400 DEV-3 and $2,000 DEV-5. Each has a pair of Sony's capable Exmor R image sensors that capture the image and electronic viewfinders that display the view to the eyes.

That basic design brings the binoculars firmly into the digital future. They also have autofocus, image stabilization, and the ability to record 3D video with AVHCD (aka H.264) encoding. And unusually for binoculars, they feature a close-focus distance of less than a half inch when recording 2D imagery and 32 inches when recording 3D.

The binoculars can zoom, too, so subjects appear between 0.9X to 10X their real-world sizes. The DEV-5 adds a digital zoom option that extends magnification to 20X, though image quality diminishes when recording 2D video in that mode. With 3D video recording, the maximum magnification is 5.3X.

Key to the success of the product will be the quality of the electronic viewfinders. Plenty of people loathe them, though high-end models feature high resolution and can respond quickly when the field of view changes. And there's no denying that a digital design brings some significant advantages when it comes to remembering what you just saw.

Update 1:20 p.m. PT: I've just pored throught the spec sheet a bit and found a few more details.

First, the binoculars will let you take still 7.1-megapixel (3072x2304 pixels) JPEG images, too, though only 2D.

Second, it stores data on Memory Stick or SDXC flash cards.

Third, each EVF has a resolution of 1.23 million dots, which is to say 852x480 pixels. (Because each pixel has red, green, and blue elements, there are three times as many dots as pixels.)

Fourth, the movie recording modes go up to 1080p at 60 frames per second for 2D video and 1080i at 60fps for 3D video.

Fifth, the sensors are pretty small, with a 4.5mm diagonal, but use a back-illuminated design for better image quality. Each has 4.2 megapixels. (Note that small chips mean the binocular optics themselves can be smaller.)

Last, the lens has a variable aperture running from f1.8 to f3.4.

Sony's DEV-5 digital binoculars, with an image sensor and electronic viewfinder, can record 3D video.
Sony's DEV-5 digital binoculars, with an image sensor and electronic viewfinder, can record 3D video. Sony Electronics
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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