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.
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.”
For much of the past decade, the world hasn’t been looking for the half step. We’ve been dazzled by visions of the giant leap. A few years ago, reports surfaced that Intellectual Ventures, the invention factory run by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft chief technology officer, was developing a Harry Potter–ish invisibility cloak. The idea has become so overpromised that physicsworld.com, a sort of Huffington Post for physicists, recently reported the theft of the world’s first flexible invisibility cloak. This set the scientific world buzzing—Did the cloak finally exist?—until the physicsworld editors revealed it was an April Fool’s joke.
That’s not to say the cloak is impossible. Two technologies have shown potential. One concept uses digital video to capture the back-side environment and project it onto front-side material. In 2003, a team of Japanese scientists developed a poncho that sort of worked. Its inventors made a video and took some photos that you can find on the Web. But it’s been nearly a decade, and the world still awaits version 2.0.
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. Or so the theory goes.
Late last year, Cramer told me about a project he’d been working on for two years that sounded like it relied on refraction. He called it “quantum stealth,” and it seemed like science fiction. “It works by bending light around an object,” he explained at the time. “So far, we’ve been able to make an object about the size of an orange completely disappear.” When he said this, I nodded and nearly choked on my skepticism. If Cramer spoke the truth, he’d have surpassed the preeminent experts in the study of light refraction.
In 2006, the Duke University engineering professors David Smith and David Shurig, working with the British physicist John Pendry, developed a method to bend microwaves. Three years ago, professor Xiang Zhang and a team at UC Berkeley managed to bend infrared waves. But nobody had yet figured out how to bend waves of visible light. I figured Guy Cramer was blowing smoke.
Months passed. Then, this spring, Cramer invited me to his workshop. When I entered, he lowered the shades. Then he pulled up his iPad and showed me a video that depicted a cream-colored wall with a dark baseboard. In front of the wall stood something resembling a Japanese shoji screen, with panes as clear as Saran Wrap: I could see the wall behind it. In the video, a woman entered the room and walked behind the screen so that her head stuck out above it. And then I watched as her body disappeared. Her head floated above the screen, and I could see the wall. But nothing of her body. “We’re bending the entire spectrum of light—infrared, ultraviolet, thermal,” Cramer told me. “People are disappearing. It doesn’t use cameras or mirrors or require power.”
I didn’t know what to make of what I had seen (and Cramer wasn’t explaining). In his work, he maintains a constant tension between concealment and revelation. His video was tantalizing proof of nothing. A kid could achieve the same effect with video-editing software. The notorious optical-camouflage poncho had seemed mind-altering when it was caught on tape too. But nothing came of it. Could Cramer have really taken such a huge leap into the realm of the invisible?
Amy Coyne thinks maybe. Coyne is vice president for program management at ADS, a Virginia-based military-equipment contractor that helps bring Cramer’s ideas to market (ADS connected the Afghans with Cramer when new army camo was needed). “We have confidence in the quantum-stealth technology,” she said. “When you think of its potential, it’s staggering.”
Whether the mysterious technology makes it out of the lab is still anybody’s guess. Scott Duncan, an official with Defence Research and Development Canada, has talked with Cramer about quantum stealth. “In an evolved form it may have some interesting applications for military and public security agencies,” he told me in an e-mail. Duncan’s near-comic reserve illustrates how unnerving Cramer’s work can be. We can’t simply trust what we’re looking at. And that, ultimately, is Guy Cramer’s craft. If we’re not entirely sure what we’re seeing, he’s doing his job.