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.
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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. Before long, Cramer had a thriving pattern boutique.

But he wanted to do more. As a child, Cramer was taught to tinker by his grandfather, Donald L. Hings, a kindly old man and a self-taught scientist with more than 50 patents to his name. One of them was for the walkie-talkie. “When I was a kid, the Canadian army brought their radar trucks around to his garage to have my grandfather fix them,” Cramer recalled. So when Guy Cramer thought about inventing things, he tended to think big. But not too big. “Too often, people are looking for the most complex solution,” he told me. “When my grandfather trained me, he said, ‘Don’t look for new technology to answer your problem. Often the real solution is a hybrid solution. Find the simple half step.’”

These days, the next half-step breakthrough in concealment might well be something called “adaptive camouflage.” “We’re working on materials that can change their color, shape, and brightness, depending on the surrounding environment,” Cramer told me. Last October, he created a stir in the military-materials community with something he’s branded “SmartCamo,” a fabric that chameleons from dark-green forest to tan-and-dun desert when the wearer operates a dimmer switch. 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.

Although Cramer declined to spell out the inner workings, his innovation adheres to his half-step principle. Similar materials were developed a few years ago by Greg Sotzing at the University of Connecticut’s Institute of Materials Science. Using electrochromatic fibers that conduct a very weak electrical current, Sotzing learned how to change the color of clothing material by sending a weak charge through it.

SmartCamo may be cool, but it’s not ready for general use. Cost is one reason. A single uniform prices out at about $1,000. “This would probably be limited to special forces,” Cramer told me. And there are power-source challenges. No soldier wants to lug around a battery. In fact, color-changing camouflage might be seen on tanks and trucks before uniforms. “If you’re looking at protecting a tank worth millions of dollars, a $10,000 cover might be worth it,” Cramer said. “Plus, you’ve got a built-in power source.”

Color-changing fabrics notwithstanding, some of the most innovative camouflage research involves studying humans just as much as textiles. Lieutenant Colonel James Merlo conducts camouflage research and teaches engineering psychology at West Point. When Guy Cramer develops a new prototype for the U.S., he’ll send it to Merlo’s lab, where the patterns are tested, often with sophisticated eye-tracking technology. “By measuring [a tester’s] head and eye movement, we can pinpoint how long it takes to identify something as an area of interest, and then how long the eye sits there before a viewer says, ‘I found the target,’” Merlo said.

Understanding what soldiers perceive as they scan is also important. The ability to distinguish animal from other organic and mechanical motion “is hard-coded in our brain,” Merlo told me. “It’s evolutionarily advantageous to know that a moving tree branch is not nearly as dangerous as a moving tiger.” Disguising joint movement is especially critical. Breaking up a soldier’s pattern at the elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders can help deflect an enemy’s attention. “Ultimately,” said Merlo, “we’re trying to confuse the way that you detect targets out in nature.”

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