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The button on Canon’s image stabilization binoculars unlocked superhuman vision

From pirates to spies to child detectives, it’s a common Hollywood trope: hold a simple pair of binoculars or binoculars to your eyes and you’ll get a crystal clear cylindrical view of what’s going on.

That is, of course, horse shit. Unless you have the hands of a surgeon, it’s surprising difficult to align eyeballs, multiple pieces of glass, and a distant subject. Kid Sean was sad when he heard that. But I’ll never forget the day Teen Sean pressed the magic button that made all the difference: the button on top of the image-stabilized binoculars that Canon still sells.

The binoculars come in many different magnifications, from 8x to 18x, and with different types of glass.

The binoculars come in many different magnifications, from 8x to 18x, and with different types of glass.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

A family friend showed me his new toy on the beach and I couldn’t understand what was so special about it. (I’m blessed with 20/20 eyesight, and I thought I could already see the swimsuit-clad ladies just fine – why would I want to add complications?) He told me I wasn’t holding down the button.

Which button? Oh, this one knob.

Suddenly there I was, right next to the crashing waves, marveling at the glints emanating from the sand. For the first time I had Legolas vision. Where had this been all my life?

Get the atmosphere of Easter Island.

Get the atmosphere of Easter Island.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

When you press this button, a computer chip reads data from the built-in accelerometers to determine your hand movements. bends one prism filled with liquid in each lens to counteract that wobbling. It all runs on a few AA batteries.

Last week I borrowed a pair of Canon 12×36 IS III binoculars for a walk down memory lane, and it was almost exactly as I remembered it. The best way I can think of to describe it: It’s like you’ve teleported 100, 200, even 300 feet closer to what you’re looking at. (I even brought my measuring wheel to the park to check.)

The actual button is rather terrible though? It’s a soft rubber teat with an even softer membrane underneath that doesn’t give any feedback. There’s no satisfying click and it’s easy to let go without realizing it. It takes a bit of force to hold it down and keep the image stabilization active. On newer models you can just tap a firmer button, I hear.

binoculars, looking from the front lenses

Canon’s 12×36 IS III.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

Anyway, as long as you hold it down and you’re well focused, the world comes into sharp relief. I got “close” to a red squirrel without fear of scaring it away, and admired how its bushy coat was clearly made up of individual hairs. I saw a knot in a tree 40 yards away, surrounded by crunchy but hairy bark. I admired the front garden of a house in the street around the park, even though half the park lay between that house and me.

At home, I could clearly make out my entire living room in the reflection of one of the ornaments on our Christmas tree from across the room. I wish I could take a photo that would do it justice, but I couldn’t hold my phone as still as I’d like, and the phone’s camera is bigger than the human eye anyway. This is the best I’ve gotten completely hand-held – imagine this zoomed in, almost as clear as it gets:

Christmas decorations close up through the lens

A somewhat blurry attempt at a shot through the 12×36 IS III.
Photo by Sean Hollister/The Verge

Canon wasn’t the first to put image stabilization in binoculars – even a cursory search suggests gyro versions for military and professional purposes have been around since the ’60s, and Leica sold a fully mechanical pair in 1990.

But it seems Canon has created the consumer/prosumer category when it comes to modern IS. The company introduced its first pair in 1995, the original 12×36 IS “The world’s first and only affordable binoculars with image stabilization.” And despite their $1,599 sticker price, publications love it Fern magazine tested them next to binoculars without any IS, marveling at how much more zoom you can get while floating. “Most marine binoculars are 7×50. That’s about the maximum before moving images start to leave the lenses,” it wrote at the time.

1996 Canon commercial explaining how the binocular image stabilization works.

1996 Canon commercial explaining how the binocular image stabilization works.

Today, the 12×36 IS is $799—still a hefty price, but much less than the $3,100 the original would have cost in today’s money.

If you decide to buy or rent a fewBe sure to check out their closest focusing distance (CFD) or minimum focusing distance (MFD) specs before you pay, as it’s easy to get more magnification than you want or need. Canon’s 12×36, for example, simply can’t focus on anything closer to you than six meters away.

I’m also a little surprised that the category hasn’t evolved since I was a teenager. Why can’t I find binoculars with image stabilization with a built-in camera or at least a smartphone lens adapter? What about modern autofocus next to the focus button? Some cheap binoculars come with a built-in camera, but I don’t see any serious binoculars with image stabilization.

Maybe that’s good news. There is still room for a company to make the ultimate pair of binoculars.

Shreya has been with australiabusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider australiabusinessblog.com, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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