Disappear Us: The Psycho-Digital Wonder of Camo

Arc’teryx Veilance Designer Conroy Nachtigall Speaks with Camouflage Innovator Guy Cramer

Recent camo looks from the Valentino, Off-White, and Marcelo Burlon County of Milan runways have shown us that blending in is sometimes the best way to stand out. But amidst the pop cultural cachet that it has received in fashion, we often forget that camouflage can be a matter of life and death. No matter where you stand on its confounding form or its cultural function, the pattern brings with it an irresistible sense of fascination and danger. Camo is biological. Camo is digital. Camo is political.

Some of the military’s newest camouflage has been conceived in Canada by the paintball champion turned stealth pattern innovator Guy Cramer. After deciding that the military’s current camo was not good enough, Cramer created his first experimental forays into digital pattern design in the early 2000s, and immediately garnered the attention of King Abdullah II of Jordan. Now president and CEO of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp., Cramer is still pioneering military camouflage based on mathematical fractals. In conversation with fellow Canadian and designer of Arc’Teryx Veilance, Conroy Nachtigall, Cramer offers a glimpse into the most high-stakes division of pattern design.

Guy Cramer blends into a background of Northern forest wearing SPEC4CE-Canuck.

Conroy Nachtigall: Historically, creating camouflage was seen more as an art. Artists were hired to come up with the design and the patterns looked expressionistic. When the first digital camouflage, CADPAT (Canadian Disruptive Pattern), came out in the 1990s, it cut through that. It wasn’t based on an interpretation of what would blend in, but on a scientific approach based on what the eye sees. It didn’t look like it would work, but that didn’t matter because it used the science of visual disruption and not the art form. You saw beyond that. What prompted you to get into camouflage design?

Guy Cramer: I played paintball, and those paintballs hurt when they hit! Everyone was using the older U.S. Army camouflage. I could tell right away, those guys were standing out. I started to research camouflage and found that the British DPM (Disruptive Pattern Material) was more effective than the camouflage used by the U.S. Army, so I started to wear DPM. All the other guys were getting spotted before me. It got me thinking, “Why is this working, and can it be done better?” I started to understand there was more to it than just the design, it was also about tactics. I was critical of the CADPAT camouflage, because it cost millions and took years to develop. I looked at it and thought, “It looks like a kid with graph paper did this.” I improved on what they had done in a couple of hours with a $100 graphics program and posted it on the web. I called it GUYPAT. A few months later, the King of Jordan saw this page and basically asked if I could do this for him.

I let them know this wasn’t my profession, but that didn’t matter to the King. He liked what I had done. So I looked into the history of camouflage: Why did Canada go digital? Well, they’d gone digital because a gentleman named Lt. Col. Timothy O’Neill—who is now my partner in camouflage design—had come up with the concept for the U.S. Army in the late­ 70s, early ­80s. The U.S. Army did tests proving it to be somewhat effective, yet it never went anywhere. Maybe because it was too artificial looking. The Canadians picked up on it and ran with it. It was only when NATO tested CADPAT and it started beating DPM that everyone took notice. That’s when the U.S. Marine Corps approached the Canadians and basically said, “We want the pattern.” The Canadians said they could have it, as long as they re­colored it.

Everyone was using the older U.S. Army camouflage. I could tell right away, those guys were standing out.

Can you talk a bit about the about the scientific aspect? What prompted the use of algorithms in the first place?

The American military had said that the next step in developing a new and better pattern is to incorporate fractals. A fractal, being a naturally repeating geometric shape, is catalogued and ignored by the brain. If we were to analyze the bushes and trees every time we walked outside, we’d be overwhelmed with data. So our subconscious says, “That’s a tree, that’s a bush, that’s this kind of bush, that’s that kind of bush—ignore.” By incorporating those patterns into a camouflage, your brain is looking at it and saying, “Ignore.” What you’re trying to do is stop the brain from analyzing an anomaly by making it think that the anomaly actually belongs in the background. That’s the first thing when designing a pattern—to get the eye to scan right over it. But the brain won’t be tricked forever. It starts to zero in on something else, maybe an arm sticking out. We use different algorithms once the brain starts analyzing the target itself, to conceal that arm properly.

You move the reference points.

Yeah, the joint points, basically. By incorporating that algorithm into a camouflage, you’re able to hide the target’s shape better. We use symmetry disruption so the left side doesn’t look the same as the right side. Everything we’re doing in camouflage has a purpose. Prior to us, it was solely a matter of intuition.

Camouflage patterns also have different functions. For the Special Forces, concealment is paramount, but for the general Army camouflage has periphery purposes—it has to convey a cohesive look and needs to be something a soldier can identify with. It becomes a rallying tool. Is there an aesthetic or subjective element involved as well?

We get everything from “It looks great, it looks wonderful, it looks effective” to “Yuck, I hate it.” In the past there was a knee-­jerk opposition to the digital patterns. There’s objective data that says they do work better, but there’s also subjective data that says the guys would rather be wearing something else. There are a whole bunch of subjective components to it—aesthetics are definitely a massive part of the decision for the general that signs off on it.

The primary reason for effective camouflage is: What you can’t see, you can’t hit. Is this part of your motivation?

It’s huge for these guys. If we can give them a few extra seconds then that’s what we want to do, that justifies the Army spending the money. The Air Force routinely spends over 100 million dollars for just one aircraft. One aircraft is equivalent to a large piece of this program, and this pattern is for the whole Army. So when the discussion of wasted money comes up—what’s really a waste of money is putting ineffective camouflage on a soldier and sending them into combat. The one they have right now is so bad it doesn’t matter what gets put forward, it would be better, and they know that.

Everything we’re doing in camouflage has a purpose. Prior to us, it was solely a matter of intuition.

How did ineffective camouflage get there in the first place?

They don’t know. There was no proper research. It was someone at the top that just made a decision, “Looks good, looks like Starship Troopers.”

Even with camouflage, there still has to be an element of visual recognition, and it still needs to act as a uniform, to be identifiable.

We have to provide something that is distinctly different than the neighboring countries. When we designed for Jordan, we looked at what Israel used, what Lebanon used, what Syria used. Fractals are great because they are visual components of a mathematical equation, sometimes a very simple one, which can provide a unique pattern that looks different than the usual camouflage used by other countries.

They set the visual parameters?

Yes, in biology we see the same rules applying. Biological techniques served as reference points for the artists who designed camouflage in the past. But artists were looking at them as the end reference points. We were looking at them and saying that evolutionary biology has limitations. In nature, you can have stripes or you can have spots. We’ve taken it a step further—we want to apply stripes and spots. It’s not about mimicry, it’s about getting something to look like it belongs in the background, but also in a lot of different backgrounds. Too often design based on biomimicry actively looks for cases when nature and design correlate. The big thing in hunting camouflage used to be a photorealistic collage of twigs and leaves. But animal perception is different. Your approach didn’t rely on mimicry. Photorealistic camouflage looks impressive because it’s so detailed, but the intense marketing push leads me to believe it’s not effective.

CUEPAT1 mimics the vertical and horizontal lines of downtown Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

CUEPAT2 tricks the mind with the illusion of depth.

Is there a difference in how our visual perception works in an urban environment versus a natural one?

The same components come into play but on a different scale. In an urban setting, you’re dealing with big, blank walls. How do you create camouflage for a blank wall? The Canadian military wanted camouflage for 10 square blocks in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, which is where they might expect an incident. The colors within that environment are quite limited, so we had photos done from numerous buildings in each location, put them through an algorithm and had the computer tell us what the four common colors were. With the colors selected, we needed a pattern. There’s very little disruption on a flat wall, maybe some grout lines, maybe some texture, but not enough to make a huge difference.

How do you get the human shape to blend in with that background?

After designing about a hundred different patterns, I came up with the two that worked best, CUEPAT­1 and CUEPAT­2. They were very distinct from each other. CUEPAT­1 has traditional detail, but not enough detail in clumps that the eye actually picks up on it.

The clumps look like they make a grid system.

Yes, because you run into that grid system with the angles and corners of buildings. The angles are running at a complete 45 degrees. The dominant angles are the horizontals, and your subconscious will pick up on that. The verticals are minimal because that’s what we see when analyzing the urban data.

Invisibility cloaks don’t fall under any current category within the military.

What was the other effective urban pattern?

With CUEPAT­2, we created something very different—a depth pattern. The brain has trouble analyzing this pattern because it thinks it’s looking through it. It’s the same effect we’re trying to cause in the animals. The brain perceives depth where there is no real depth.

Describe the cultural element in how visual disruption works.

It’s more psychological than cultural. The human brain perceives the same things regardless of culture. A Kalahari bushman will see the same thing as a businessman from Johannesburg. However, a country may select a pattern due to cultural perception. This was the case in Malaysia where they selected a very odd pattern of ours, HollowTex. I only later found out that the pattern’s geometry was similar to a configuration they use throughout their culture from curtains, to carpets, to clothing. Does this make it more effective for that culture? Perhaps, if you’re standing in front of those curtains.

The new proposal you’ve submitted is another incarnation of camouflage as we know it: Quantum Stealth, true invisibility. How much of that is going to become the forefront of camouflage?

Quantum Stealth, the light bending technology, will likely be used for the top tier Special Forces. My assumption is it will be used until someone drops it in combat and the enemy reverse-engineers it. Then they’ll give it to the whole Army.

How long until light bending material is feasible to issue to the entire Army?

That depends on military command decisions. I’ve had media contact me asking for pictures. For reasons of security, I can’t send pictures, but if you were to take a picture of the material within the environment, and one with the material not in the picture, they would look almost identical. And if there was someone standing behind Quantum Stealth you would not see anyone at all. That’s what the material does, it bends light right around, so you’re seeing what’s behind the target, not the target itself.

Is it an object, or an actual fabric?

Both. Like a Japanese screen, like a hunting blind. But you can put it right on the clothing itself, and it’s just as effective. We’ve tested it out and it works.

If this got into the wrong hands, it seems like it would be a huge concern. Even in the civilian world, it could wreak havoc.

You would think so! That’s how we perceive it, but that’s not the message we’re hearing from the people who make the decisions. If Hollywood took this and turned it into a movie, there would be people chasing me in helicopters. It’s ridiculous that there is so little interest from the military for this at this stage—real life is red tape, politics, and budget limitations. It’s frustrating to have something that works so well that no one believes it. Invisibility cloaks don’t fall under any current category within the military.

Photography: Brent Goldsmith
GIF and Styling: SSENSE
Interview: Conroy Nachtigall