We got our hands on the SiOnyx Aurora (~$719-$799), a high-performance consumer night-vision action camera that can also be used as a monocular. Aimed at the outdoor enthusiast market, Aurora could complement any activity that happens in extreme low-light situations: Hunting, boating, emergency services and more are listed by SiOnyx, but there’s no limit. How good is it in the real world? We played with it for several days.
Night video quality
I’ll cut to the chase and answer the image and video quality question right away. At night, this camera’s low-light videos and viewfinder will blow away any smartphones, by a very, very long shot. That is the difference between “low light” and “night-vision” video capabilities. This side by side video with the Huawei P20 Pro, one of the best low-light smartphone camera will illustrate this better than words:
I liked to use it exclusively in “Twilight mode” because you get much better coloring. There’s a “Night mode” that a bit better and is less noisy and the colors are gone, but it lowers the noise.
When people look into the Aurora’s viewfinder they are blown away out when experiencing this kind of night vision for the first time. It’s just not something we’re used to because this level of night vision capabilities was reserved to the military not so long ago. Now they have even better options…"WHEN PEOPLE LOOK INTO THE VIEWFINDER FOR THE FIRST TIME, THEY ARE BLOWN AWAY"
I will come back to this later, but it is crucial to understand that this camera does not need any kind of infrared illumination to work, which means that images look more natural (given the circumstances), and you get unlimited range in the distance. Things just don’t fade away as if you held a flashlight. It does work very well with a small amount of light, Even 0.5 LUX is enough to see clearly.
Aurora can capture color photos and videos (720p) in extremely low-light conditions, something that many other night-vision equipment in the same price range don’t do, or don’t do nearly as well.
SiOnyx has more samples on their YouTube channel, if you are curious, but the Go Pro comparisons were the most compelling to me.
Still photos, day and night: phones can still compete. To a point.
In broad daylight, you can expect a high-end smartphone to do much better, but many people will probably find Aurora acceptable enough, depending on the use case. To be frank, its daylight photo capability is closer to a basic smartphone. We understand that the technology is designed for night-vision, but of course, we would ideally want both.
In night-time still photography, smartphone cameras are usually not as bright as Aurora (by a mile). The Huawei P20 Pro with its “night mode” is the smartphone that can compete better than others, with a normal shot, but especially with the extreme 4-seconds exposure. Obviously, these are two very different devices, but it shows you where the smartphone worlds stands in comparison.
The conclusion is: with night-time street lighting, the phones can get by, but in more extreme conditions, the Aurora might capture something a phone wouldn’t. However, the photo will be very noisy.
Smartphones do well in still photography because they can use a range of computational photography techniques like massive multi-frame noise reduction, sensor binning and more. However, these tricks can’t be performed in video, or during a live view. That explains the difference in low-light performance in video.
SiOnyx is positioning its Aurora camera in the Action Cam market, but since there’s little to no competition, the company is hoping to create a night-vision market at this price point. As you have seen before, regular Action Cams would have already a hard-time competing in low-light against a high-end smartphone; they surely can’t touch the Aurora on its turf.
Low-light technology based on Black Silicon
The reason why SiOnyx’s Aurora performs so well comes down to one thing: its ultra-low-light CMOS sensor, which is tuned to maximize the light sensitivity to the 850nm and 950nm infrared spectrums. 850nm is used for consumer applications such as home webcams, and you can see the red color of the lights if you look at them. 940nm is entirely invisible to the naked eye and is usually used for tactical reasons.
You don’t need an IR illuminator as everything around you emits some IR radiations:
- Anything above the absolute zero (-273.15C) radiates “some” infra-red because it is produced by the motion of atoms and molecules.
- Outdoors scenes are warmed up during the day, which makes IR radiation even stronger. This is called “nightglow”.
- Any object emitting heat will radiate IR
The fundamental building block of this exceptional night-vision capability for civilians is SiOnyx Black Silicon sensor. Most camera sensors are made of silicon, but Black Silicon is a semiconductor whose surface has been designed to absorb much more light (visible+IR) because it has an extremely low reflectivity. It means that no light is wasted by being reflected out. SiOnyx says it “has more than 1,000 claims to the technology used in Black Silicon”. The company has worked for the military, but the details are not public.
The photo below shows on the surface of the chip at the microscopic level: you see the needle-shaped structures that go upwards, some call it a “light trap”. This is designed to capture light and prevent it from reflecting back out. That’s the reason reflectivity went from ~20-30% for ordinary silicon to ~5% with Black Silicon. Sensitivity can be “hundreds of times higher”.
In addition to the extreme performance of the base silicon, the Aurora sensor is also much bigger than conventional action cams or smartphone. Just look at the photo below to imagine how much more light it can capture.
Industrial design and ergonomics
With 118.55 x 63.2 x 52.5 mm dimensions, the SiOnyx Aurora fits in the palm of the hand and is relatively pocketable for outdoors activities. Still, it is significantly more massive than a GoPro, or a smartphone. In theory, the technology could be miniaturized later, but for this first product, the company is advancing cautiously, using a standard camera lens, with its proprietary sensor.
I mostly used the SiOnyx Aurora as a monocular, but the camera has a standard tripod mount at the bottom, and there’s a GoPro adapter if you want to have a bit more options. It is also possible to mount it on a drone or use it as a night-vision rifle scope, but I have tried neither.
The camera has a rugged design since it is built for outdoor activities. I haven’t tried to drop it or anything like that, but the build quality seems high, and the camera feels sturdy and reliable. I pointed out to SiOnyx that they should think about getting a MIL-STD-810G certification, but that would probably delay the shipping and add more cost to the device.
It does have IP67 rating water and dust protection, which means that it can be entirely submerged in about 1 meter of water for 30 mn. Dust cannot penetrate inside.
Except for the assumption that you’re right-handed, the ergonomic is well-done and straightforward. On the left, you have the mode selector with the simple icons such as Photo, Video, Video Loop, etc. At the top, you will find the shutter button and a digital controller (4 directions joystick + button) to tweak settings such as exposure and so on. Most people can probably just always use the auto mode, just like on smartphones.
Perhaps, the only thing that caught me at times was using it in very dark conditions where I could not see the button labels without additional light. I can only dream of having some Interface text painted with SuperLuminova, which glows at night, but this might not be desirable at all times, like for hunting.
Finally, on the front, you have the manual focus is the scene selector (Day, Twilight, Night) and the manual focus — there is no autofocus. Yes, you read that right, no auto-focus. I was worried about this at first, and it might be a bit annoying if you want to use the camera for macro or short-distance shots. However, I tend to use it as a binocular, and I mostly focus it to “infinity.” That said, I’d love to see autofocus in the next one, just for the convenience.
Here’s an official video that shows more details, without having you read a couple more paragraphs:
To copy the files to my computer, I just connected a micro-USB cable, and the Aurora showed up as a USB drive. The same port can be used to charge it. The recording happens on a
The SiOnyx Aurora delivers on its night-vision promise with the best night-vision capabilities we’ve seen in a civilian device. It is relatively compact, well-built and its user experience is very satisfying. It can accommodate many use cases in theory, and we’re very curious to see how people will use it."IT FEELS LIKE A SUPER-POWER"
Night vision is in many ways like super-zoom: everybody likes it because it feels like a super-power, and it’s no surprise that this project was funded within hours. What do you think? Drop a comment below and let us know if you expected it to perform this way.