Saturday 5 December 2015

New aiming device, VIASS Pro, is it the future?

With the announcement that Swarovski are discontinuing production of the ZE-B618 acoustic scope, a new aiming device is needed. Whilst I feel that the real future is to have a system like the Scatt MX02 or the aiming system for the blind made by Wings Group which works with the standard ISSF target, at an international level in the sport there seems to be a preference to go towards using systems which have an infrared LED placed near the target. One such infrared based infrared device is the VIASS Pro. Based on having seen one and the features it has I decided to buy one, below is my view of what the VIASS pro is like.

Swarovski: The benchmark to beat

Before discussing the VIASS, it is probably worth quickly recapping the Swarovski to make it clear what the benchmark is. The general principal of the Swarovski is that it contains a light sensor mounted within a telescopic sight, and when it detects more light the higher the tone it produces. We suspect that it may be averaging light over a certain area and it has also been suggested that it may do some centre weighting to bias the signal to light in the centre of its view. Precisely how the electronics work is not known for certain, but we have strong reason to believe it is an analogue system, which has the advantage that the tone changes smoothly. As the tone varies continually it has no concept of a tone relating to a specific scoring ring on the target, it is for the shooter to evaluate when they believe they have the highest pitch tone and that it is as steady as they can achieve. The system has very little customisation available, there is a small screw adjuster behind a plastic cap at the back of the scope to adjust the frequency of the tone it produces and there are adjusters to correct the mean point of impact. Its a very simple device, but it works very well with scores of over 90 on the smaller rifle sized card being achievable, I think it has sufficient resolution to allow one to shoot a 10 on the rifle sized card, it is just being a good enough shooter which limits that. The Swarovski has been in production for a long time, I have heard people say as early as the 1970s or 1980s. The quality and reliability of the Swarovski is good and it is not unknown for them to last well over 10 years.

VIASS: The newcomer

Now to the VIASS Pro, the new comer, in fact so new that there is no online shop and you need to place your order via email and make payment through bank transfer. In these days of the online shop with next day delivery and automated order updates, it was quite noticeable the contrast in ordering the VIASS, although really it wasn't a problem. Rather than include photos here, I will let you visit the VIASS website for pictures, an audio sample of its output and full specifications.

The first thing I noticed when picking it out of its box is how light it is in comparison to the Swarovski. According to its specifications it only weighs 190g, which is less than half the weight of the Swarovski. VIASS even suggest you could use it on a pistol, although you would need to find a pistol with a dovetail to accept the scope mount. Much of the weight saving I guess is due to the use of plastic rather than metal. Whilst saving weight, this leads to my first concern with it, how stable and secure the components are mounted and how it will last over time. Hopefully if one looks after it, providing the plastics used are good quality, it should be able to last without issue.

Unlike the Swarovski which uses standard telescopic sight mounts, the VIASS has a clamp mount built in. Again may be it saves weight and might be cheaper to produce, it does mean that the gun you use will need to have a dovetail and can accept a clamp which is the full length of the scope. On my Steyr I fitted it to the rear rail but the rear end of the clamp still hangs off the end of the rail, this though should not be an issue as there is plenty of clamp holding it in place. However as the scope is shorter than the Swarovski and so on my Steyr is all behind the loading port, may be it will mean it will interfere less with loading mechanisms than the Swarovski did.

Power is provided through a mini USB port on the top of the device. I possibly question placing it up there, it just doesn't look like it will help stability of the rifle. However in use it did not seem to cause an issue. The scope is supplied with a USB battery and 30cm cable, obviously the intention is that you will mount the battery on the rifle although you could use a USB extension cable and put the battery in your shooting jacket pocket and save weight on the rifle. I am not keen on the supplied battery, it has a push button to turn it on and off, but the status is only indicated by LEDs which is not good for those with no sight, but there are plenty of other USB power packs out there. The headphone socket is on the right hand side of the scope, should you let the cable hang down you may find they get caught by the loading lever or hang over the pistol grip. I did a little cable management on the rifle to keep the cables out of the way.

Now everything is rigged up, to the controls. All controls are at the rear of the device. The manual is not very descriptive for those with no sight and you will need someone to explain which is which. Here is a description for you. On the back of the device there are three small rotary controls, the left one being slightly higher than the other two. The left most rotary control is the volume control and you will find four buttons around it, one above, one to the left, one to the right and one below. These four buttons are the arrow keys which are used for adjusting the point of aim. These buttons are so designed that to do multiple presses you need to release and repress the button for each adjustment, this means you will not accidentally adjust it more than you intend. Each adjustment is confirmed by a beep in the headphones. The middle rotary control adjusts the main aiming tone frequency and there seems to be a good amount of variation available. The right most rotary control adjusts the pitch of the frequency of the tone for the centre region. These controls allow you lots of flexibility in how you have your sound set up, the centre tone can be lower than the lead in tones, it can be the same as the highest lead in tone or it can be higher than the lead in tones. When you have your tones set up as you like them, you can remove the rotary control knobs so they will not get accidentally changed. I probably will not remove them as they are fiddle to refit and I don't think they will be prone to accidental adjustment.

At the very bottom of the control panel there are three buttons, at the moment the left most button which is labelled F1 is the most useful, it adjusts the size for the centre tone between a rifle and pistol sized target. I have been told this will be adjustable with the computer when the software is released. The middle button is labelled F2 and will change the training software between rifle and pistol targets, and the right button labelled F3 will change the training software between sighting and competition. Again this needs the software to be released before it can be used. I do hope the software will come soon.

So how is it to use when shooting. When the device is turned on but not pointing at the target it does not make a sound, only once it starts detecting the infrared LED does it start producing tones. This whilst reducing the hand movement you need to do between shots, as a long time Swarovski user I kept finding myself automatically reaching for a on/off switch which does not exist on the VIASS. The next thing to notice is that as a digital system the transition of the tones is stepped rather than being a smooth variation. With other digital systems I have not liked this stepped tone, but with the VIASS whilst I would say it is not quite as nice as the Swarovski, it did not seem to distract me in my shooting.

You may have noticed me refer to a tone for the centre region. Yes that is right the VIASS has a different tone indicating the center region. The frequency of the tone does not vary within this center region and if set too large will mean that you will not be able to achieve the best accuracy. Equally set it too small and you will be able to hear very small movements you may not be able to stop and so may lead to you over trying and taking too long on a shot. The VIASS website has a sample sound. The sample sound is configured with the centre region being a lower tone than the lead in tones. This to me feels slightly odd that you need to increase the frequency of the tone and then suddenly it will drop when you get to the very middle. However remember you can adjust the frequencies of the tones and so it need not be that way round.

Something which did surprise me was that the mental load on trying to aim with the VIASS actually seemed less. Also it seemed like I may be was finding the target a bit easier and quicker than with the Swarovski. There could be two reasons for this. As the VIASS makes no sound until it finds the infrared LED and there are not many other sources of infrared it means that it will only start making tones when you find the target. With the Swarovski you could find a slightly brighter patch near the target which causes a slight raise in tone and then you start aiming with that patch of light only to not be able to find a tone which would relate to the centre of the target, so you waste time investigating light spots which are irrelevant. The other reason being that the centre tone of the VIASS can be very distinct from the lead in tones, where as the Swarovski the more accurate you are the less the tone will vary.

There were a couple of small issues I found. One is when doing multiple presses on a arrow key it did not seem to respond to every press if doing it quickly. If you are aware of this then it seems perfectly workable, just wait for each beep to finish and do the presses at a steady rate. The other issue is a slightly more puzzling one, there were occasions when taking a shot the scope would just emit a long beep which had no relationship to the point of aim. I don't know for sure but it almost seemed like the device was restarting. It seemed to mainly happen just after taking a shot, normally when it had been held in the centre region for some time. May be with firmware updates these issues can be solved.

Now the question how accurate is it. Supposedly the resolution of the camera is such that it can detect movements of 0.7mm. Trying it out in practice I cannot verify that, but the accuracy does seem to be at least as good as the Swarovski. When firing it off a stand to test it out for accuracy, I heard a comment from behind saying that it was worryingly accurate, may be that says it all. It has been suggested that may be in the future there will be a replacement lens for prone which will lead to it detecting 0.3mm movement, although this would lead to a smaller field of view and so you will get less lead in and will need to find the target more accurately.

Infrared LED options

Quickly to describe the options you have for LEDs. VIASS offer two versions, one which is a small board and a power cable, again using a USB battery for power. The board can be fitted to an eleectronic target with velcro or such like. The other option is a small LED powered by a button battery which is mounted to a cardboard mask which is the same size as a air pistol target. The idea being that you can put this in a target changer with a paper target, as the two are the same size you should be able to get the LED in the same place relative to the centre of the target each time. This has one advantage over the electronic target system, it means that you do not need to go down range when using paper targets. May be electronic target manufacturer's could start including the infrared LED in their target systems and that would mean also not needing to go down range to install a LED.


So would I say VIASS is a worthy replacement for the Swarovski. From what I have seen it has the potential to, although may be it could do with some small improvements. The firmware glitches I mentioned hopefully will get sorted and will be user updatable. The computer software still needs to be released and is required to access certain features of the device. Providing these get addressed, then my only concern is the reliability and this will only be known with time. When considering the price, how long a device will last is certainly important to determine if it is worth the cost. With no track record of previous devices and the VIASS Pro being new, I feel may be the asking price is a bit high particularly considering that there is no mention of a multi-year warranty, although multi-year warranties mean nothing should the company discontinue the model or go out of business. Swarovski could ask much as they did because you could be fairly certain of it lasting for ages. May be in a few years once the reliability is established VIASS may have earned a reputation which could be seen to deserve such a asking price.

For those who cannot afford this then cheaper options may be needed. Whether something such as Kedok might be worth looking at.

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