The Bionic Binoculars


When it comes to binoculars, we’re usually accustomed to using the ancient and battered pair found in whatever boat or cabin we happen to be using – you know, stiff with corrosion, never quite in focus, only a little better than our eyesight. Modern digital alternatives that combine the ability to view objects at a distance with the ability to record photos or video have been around a while now and seemed promising, but in our experience they have always been more trouble than they’re worth. That changed with our recent test of the Sony DEV-50V binoculars, during a trip to Monterey Bay for the beginning of the salmon season.

To be clear, these aren’t a casual-use toy, but instead are targeted at those of us who are avid voyeurs, as it were: Think hunters, birders, whale-watchers, and the like, as well as plane spotters or just devout sports fans. And while prosumer types may still opt to carry around a DSLR along with a pair of binocs, the idea is that the DEV-50V offers the ability to kill two birds – or snap high-quality images of them from an extreme distance – at once.

At just over a pound and a half and 6 by 3 by 6 inches, the matte black, weatherproof DEV-50V would be at home on Batman’s utility belt. With ours tucked in a bag, we headed out early in the morning from Santa Cruz and made it to the salmon fishing grounds by 5 am. In near pitch darkness, we took out our binocs and activated the Hyper Gain function, which digitally increases the brightness in the viewfinder. Other fishing boats quickly came into autofocus, letting us comfortably maneuver between them to find our lucky spot. As the darkness lifted, the fog descended though, which stymied the glasses until it eventually burned off. 

The rest of the morning we found ourselves spending as much time spying on our neighboring boats – in 3-D no less – as we did actually fishing. There are two recording modes (2-D and 3-D), which you swap between easily using a dedicated switch, though for some reason you can only capture stills as 20-megapixel 2-D shots (for now). Also, images and video can be geotagged so that all of your media can be uploaded to a PC and viewed on a map. The big hook, though, is how amazingly clear and dynamic images are compared with a pair of regular binoculars, even when fully zoomed at 25X (thanks to built-in optical stabilization). Add in the optional 3-D function and somehow objects appear even more dimensionally vivid than in real life: Up-close fishing poles popped out at us, and it sometimes felt as if we were on the other boat happily bringing a thrashing salmon aboard.

There are some obvious limitations that crept up, namely price and battery life. While bird spotters and their ilk may happily drop two grand on a telephoto lens, doing so on a pair of binoculars may be a harder sell, especially since they’re rated for just three hours of 2-D video recording. We drained our juice by mid-afternoon, for instance. (And since the DEV-50V relies on a proprietary Sony rechargeable, you either have to second-guess what you shoot, or opt for a second, or third, battery.) 

We called it a day after finally bringing up one decent salmon and headed home to grill it. While we ate the perfectly grilled salmon with a little lemon, we watched the footage on a 3-D television and it brought us right back aboard the boat, which, as it turns out, was a little too realistic for some viewers, who felt seasick all over again. [$2,000;]

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