Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

Invisible, Inc.

Got an army you need to hide? With more than a million soldiers in a dozen countries wearing his camouflage patterns, Guy Cramer is now hoping to change how the Pentagon dresses. Inside the evolving science of concealment.
Christopher J. Morris/Redux

I drove past Guy Cramer’s office twice before I finally realized it was the place I was looking for. Which was exactly how Cramer planned it. A quiet, affable Canadian who favors close-cropped hair and olive slacks, Cramer is one of the world’s top designers of military camouflage. His patterns are modeled by at least 1 million soldiers in more than a dozen countries including Canada, the United States, and Jordan. Late last year, the Afghan National Army took delivery of more than 130,000 new uniforms, all printed with a Guy Cramer design.

Cramer’s company, HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation, sounds like one of those large, villainous military contractors in a Matt Damon thriller. But it’s really just him and a part-time assistant. HyperStealth’s research lab is an unmarked office in a former grade school in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Local industry consists of a sawmill. Once you get to know Cramer, you realize the environs express his aesthetic of concealment. He practices the fine art of not being noticed.

Over the past 10 years, Cramer, 43, has created more than 8,000 unique camouflage patterns. Ultimately none may have more influence than his most recent design. In April, the United States Army issued a request for proposals for a new family of camouflage patterns to replace the Universal Camouflage Pattern design that’s been the Army’s general-issue print since 2004. Cramer is expected to be among the top contenders for the contract to create a family of patterns and palettes that can function nearly anywhere in the world. The winner of this Pentagon Project Runway will walk away with one of the most prestigious—and possibly most lucrative—contracts in military fashion. Nobody knows yet how much the winning bid will net, because each design shop will propose its own licensing fee. (Cost will be one of many factors in choosing a winner.) When I visited his office, it was clear that Cramer wasn’t losing any sleep over the bid. “We’ve been developing our pattern over the past six years,” he said. “We know it is effective.” In keeping with camo-designing custom, though, Cramer declined to show it to me. As you might expect, the concealment industry is fraught with secrecy.

Slideshow: A visual history of military camouflage

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. Patterns and colors evolved during the ’80s and ’90s, but the basic look remained the same: green and brown—striped, swirled, and blobbed. 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.

That’s when Guy Cramer got into the game. A former world-class paintball player, Cramer was then developing hyperbaric chambers and passive negative-ion generators for professional hockey players (a story for another day). He was also a Canadian taxpayer.

“I looked at the pattern and I thought, You’ve got to be kidding me. My tax dollars for this?CADPAT looked unlike any natural background a soldier would encounter. Using a $100 computer-graphics program, he cooked up his own digital pattern in about three hours. He posted it on the Web and labeled it GUYPAT. As luck would have it, King Abdullah of Jordan was at that moment shopping for new uniforms. A Jordanian official spotted Cramer’s design and cold-called him. “We like what we see,” the caller said.

Cramer threw himself into the opportunity. Giving himself a crash course in the science of camouflage and eyesight, he discovered that digital camo made a lot of sense. 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.

Presented by

Bruce Barcott is a contributing editor at Outside magazine and the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird.

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