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The binoculars are the symbol of the birdwatcher, that humblest of sorts.

But in recent years, birdwatching—indeed, the practice of observing nature in general—has become the spectacle of a new era. In 2006, Planet Earth wowed audiences as the first nature documentary to be filmed in HD. It reached 100 million viewers, making it reportedly the most watched cable event in history. Films like March of the Penguins (2005) and Winged Migration (2001) similarly became sensations. The nature documentary has become the new Hollywood blockbuster, mentioned almost in the same breath with films like Avatar.

In this context, word of Sony’s new binoculars, which act more like a James Cameron camera than anything else, comes as no surprise. (Sony’s press release is here; we come to it via PopSci.) The DEV-3 and DEV-5, as the forthcoming binoculars are called, are really just pairs of high-end HD camcorders shaped like binoculars. Capable of capturing that Blue Jay’s chirping or that Herring Gull’s mating dance in 720p and 3-D, these are the binoculars the Avatar director would use himself, were he a birder.

A few more specs on the binoculars-cum-cameras, or cameras-cum-binoculars, depending on your perspective. They each sport a pair of Sony’s G-Lens optics systems, are able to churn out 3-D footage (in an utterly natural way, these are binoculars, after all), take 2-D shots, and, of course, can snap plain photos, in up to 7MP. Both binoculars get 10x optical zoom (or just 5.4x in 3-D mode), while the DEV-5 can also go up to 20x via its digital zoom. The battery supposedly lasts over three hours for 2-D recording—you can beef that up another three hours or so with an extended battery. Needless to say, the binoculars also come with those non-digital staples: eye cups, carrying case, and neck strap. Both models come out in November, with the DEV-3 priced at $1,400 and the DEV-5 priced at $2,000.

Of course, when news of Sony’s binoculars first hit the Internet, there was no shortage of people beginning to wonder how they could be used for nefarious purposes. Because a built-in GPS receiver allows the user to geo-tag photos and video, a few commenters have suggested that the devices could be an off-the-shelf solution for your neighborhood terrorist. Others have found them, if not outright threatening, than at least vaguely creepy. “Voyeurs everywhere, rejoice!” wrote one, calling the devices a “paparazzi wet dream.”

Spy games, bad guys, and ogling the beautiful and famous, who knew the birdwatcher’s humble tool would ever become such an object of controversy?

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