You probably remember the legendary keynote. “A phone. An iPod. An Internet communicator. These are not three separate devices. This is one device! And we are calling it…”. Well, iPhone, of course - the device that, along with all other smartphones, became a much bigger thing than even Steve Jobs imagined.
In a smaller corner of the world concerned with watching birds, some of us have dreamed about a similar “one device” for a long, long time. A typical day in the field might include observing a bird with binoculars, then trying to snap a photo/video of it with a superzoom camera or a heavier and bigger “400+mm” kind, only to see it land on the faraway edge of the marsh and set up the the spotting scope to get a better view. Three separate devices - and lots of time wasted in fiddling with them, often killing the joy of purely observing the bird.
And, yes, we still don’t have jetpacks and flying cars two decades into the 21st century. How about at least one of these digital binoculars with super powerful zoom and video that we see in the movies ("Are your scopes Jedi-issue, sir?")? We might wait a little longer for that, too, but in the meantime one of the most respected brands in the optics business has something exciting on offer - a glimpse of the future. And they are calling it… Swarovski dG (“digital Guide”).
Here is how it looks
The dG feels comfortable in the hand with its semi-circle shape.
If you browse Swarovski Optik’s website, among all familiar shapes and sizes of binoculars and spotting scopes, you find an oddity - something that doesn’t quite fit. It’s a monocular with a gentle, almost semi-circle shape disguised in the subdued green colour of the brand… and comes with a power button. If you get a hold of it, it feels quite comfortable in the hand. Turn it around and you see not one, but two objective lenses (the ones far away from your eyes) - one for optical observation and one for recording photos and videos. They work together toenable what the dG is actually about - the ability to: 1. observe birds and wildlife with 8x magnification; 2. document and share them with photos, video clips or (the part that’s most fun) real-time streaming; 3. identify them by using Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID app or the dedicated dG Mammals app.
These functions point out to the two main “modes” to use the dG. One is personal - you go out to watch birds, spot something interesting or a species you might not know, snap a photo of it (if you have charged the battery - the dG will still work as a monocular while turned off, but it won’t take photos or videos) and put it through the paces of an app that will try to identify it for you.
The other is social - you go out to watch birds with your friends / family / kids (including non-birders), you link up to five smartphones in a five-meter radius from the dG and let the fun begin by live-streaming what you see (and everyone snapping photos and videos on their own device as they wish). This social mode would also work quite well for combinations such as “teacher + schoolchildren” or “bird guide + novice birders”. You don’t need an internet connection for that, since the dG does this by creating its own Wi-Fi network.
We tested both these modes with a diverse group of people - from professional birdwatchers and ornithologists and more casual birders to families with children and people who have never properly “birded” before. Some of them were really enthusiastic (especially the children), some started immediately comparing the dG to using a standard binocular/camera kit, while others were a bit skeptical about its practical everyday use. We also tested the dG ourselves - sometimes carrying it with other devices to compare the experience, other times using it as the only device for birding. The experience feels a bit strange at first and the dG definitely needs an open-minded approach if you have actively used binoculars and a camera before.
Our dG experience
We tested the device personally, as well as with diverse groups of people.
In practice, the dG works in the following way: you turn it on, connect it to a smartphone using the dG app and start using it just like a normal binocular. You spot a bird, focus manually and observe through high-quality sharp optics (the ones used in the CL Companion binocular range). If you want to take a photo, first make sure that the markings in the viewfinder look sharp to you (to avoid getting a blurry shot), press the power button firmly (its rubber covering takes a bit of effort to register your touch) and after a slight delay the photo appears on your phone. The dG saves a very small amount of photos in its internal memory - the idea is to get them to your phone as quickly as possible. The quality of the shots is fairly decent and, as expected, they strongly depend on the light conditions you encounter.
If you want to ID a bird, simply fire up the Merlin app and go through the process (yes, you need two apps to make the most of the dG). Merlin is getting better every single day and its bird identification capabilities are impressive, even with blurry photos or silhouettes from a distance. If the dG runs out of battery, which won’t happen easily if you make sure to charge it beforehand, you will still be able to use it as a monocular without all the other capabilities.
Of course, as with any novel device, you might experience some issues. The connection might drop or if it’s not strong enough you get laggy live picture; some of the photos could be blurry because the focus wasn’t 100% right despite the internal stabilizer and autofocus (there are some manual adjustments in the app but they are not as intuitive as just pointing and snapping a photo), a batch of photos might be duplicated because the dG decided to give them to you one more time… All of this is to be expected - and some of these issues might be resolved with future software updates. On the “physical” part, one small wish on our side concerns the carrying case for the dG. It’s quite comfortable, but a bit too small to fit the device with the strap attached. Having some more room to put it in or take it out would be great.
What the dG sees
A selection of photos created with the device.
Is there anything to compare the dG with? 10 years ago Sony created the DEV-3 and then the DEV-5 digital binoculars with optical zoom and high-quality video recording, but they got mixed reviews due to being bulky, difficult to use and quite expensive for what they offered. In 2020, Canon launched the PowerShot Zoom - a tiny device with the equivalent of 400mm photo lens, capable of taking pictures and video. It looks promising, but it’s definitely built to “record” things rather than simply looking at them through good quality optics. And interesting competitor might be NexOptic’s DoubleTake, first shown in 2019 - a device with a large LCD screen on the back (no viewfinder), 10x optical magnification and 4K video recording. It’s not yet commercially available - the company is looking for a production partner. One major possible downside of the DoubleTake might be its purely digital nature - when the battery runs dry, there is no way to use it.
In conclusion, the dG definitely feels like a device that wants to live in the future. By design, it should help you see birds better, identify them more easily and share your experience with others. This isn’t a device that you tinker with a lot - it’s supposed to do best on “Auto mode”. We might imagine a future version capable of automatically focusing the bird that you are looking at, zooming in and out and snapping perfectly sharp high quality photos. We are not quite there yet - but Swarovski are definitely on track with the dG. It's fresh, it’s fun, it's exciting and opens up many possibilities. By combining the ability to view, record and "share" the birds we see, it will hopefully reach more and more people and help them experience the joy of birdwatching.
Review by Sofia Bird Walks
Sofia, Bulgaria, 2021
Many thanks to Swarovski Optik and especially Alex and Dana for providing us with the opportunity to test the dG.