The Atlantic traces the history of military disguise in the twentieth century, the breakthrough realization that pixelated, “digital”-looking camouflage patterns work better than the traditional swirly ones, and the future of making people undetectable to the human eye:
Modern military camouflage traces its origins to World War I, when the French army gathered a cadre of artists in three top-secret workshops near the western front. The blotchy smocks they created sparked the popular imagination. Camouflage was not issued widely, though, because of the high cost and low production capacity: every yard of camouflage was a hand-painted work of art.
U.S. marines in the Pacific wore industrially manufactured camouflage during World War II, but its use was limited in Europe because German paratroopers were known for their camouflage uniforms, and American officials didn’t want confusion to cause fratricide. Camo uniforms were more widely issued to U.S. troops in the early 1970s, when jungle prints provided immediate advantages in Vietnam. Then in the late ’90s, the Canadians adopted the next generation of camouflage: they went digital. The Canadian Army’s pattern, called CADPAT (for “Canadian Disruptive Pattern”), replaced swirls with pixel-shaped blocks.
CADPAT looked unlike any natural background a soldier would encounter. The idea had been conceived by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy O’Neill, who founded the U.S. Military Academy’s engineering-psychology program. In 1976, O’Neill painted an armored personnel carrier in a crude block-print pattern he called “Dual-Tex.” The results were astounding. Spotters took significantly longer to find the Dual-Tex vehicle than one with a standard paint job.
The reason has to do with the way the eye and the brain interact. The eye has evolved to conduct two operations simultaneously. Focal vision involves our direct attention, as when the eye centers on words that we’re reading. Meanwhile, ambient vision is constantly processing visual information in our periphery. It’s trained to pick up cues of motion, color, and shape—as when, say, you spot a mouse scampering along the baseboard—and to ignore what it perceives as visual white noise.
Digital camouflage wants the eyes’ ambient system to see it, register it as unimportant, and send no alarm to the brain. Dual-Tex made that happen, by breaking up color and shape at tactical combat distance (50 to 300 meters). It turned the human form into background noise.
Despite its proven effectiveness, the material was shelved by military brass, who refused to believe something so artificial-looking could work. Only after the Canadians went digital (and the U.S. Marine Corps, shortly thereafter) did the Army follow suit in 2004. Around the same time, the first of 390,000 uniforms, Guy Cramer’s debut collection, were issued in Jordan. Word got around.
These days, the next half-step breakthrough in concealment might well be something called “adaptive camouflage” — “materials that can change their color, shape, and brightness, depending on the surrounding environment”. SmartCamo is a fabric that chameleons from dark-green forest to tan-and-dun desert when the wearer operates a dimmer switch. “We’re working on materials that can change their color, shape, and brightness, depending on the surrounding environment,” says Guy Cramer. When he demonstrated it for me (the stuff really works), Cramer half-apologized for the crudeness of the design. “I’ve got a version in the works that adapts automatically, using a light sensor,” he said.
The other technology that shows promise involves so-called metamaterials, fabrics engineered at the nano level to interact with light to produce what’s known as a negative index of refraction. Refraction occurs when a wave—a microwave, a light wave—changes speed. Think of how a drinking straw in a water glass appears to bend at the surface. That’s refraction, produced as light moves from air to water. If scientists can figure out how to manipulate this action and bend light around an object (imagine a stream of water moving around a rock), they might be able to make the object appear to disappear.