What do you think of when you hear the word camouflage? If the first image that comes to mind is of soldiers on a battlefield, you’re on the right track. The military has heavily invested in the concept, but what most people overlook is the fact that camouflage is humans’ attempt at trying to mimic animal characteristics. Animals that are known for their camouflage capabilities include chameleons and snow leopards. While the idea of hiding in plain sight is no doubt intriguing, the science behind it is even more interesting.
Animals with prints that distort their body outline, known as matching their ‘edges’, make it much harder for a predator to track them down. Abbot Handerson Thayer, a late 19th century American artist, was first to write about this phenomenon when he observed that animal camouflage typically took the form of colour patches on their skin or fur. This discovery is known as fractals. A well-known animal that uses this type of camouflage technique are zebras.
This type of camouflage is different from the immersive background-matching kind we see in animals like chameleons. A chameleon’s camouflage is effective when they aren’t moving, but is rather noticeable once they do; the key difference is the chase versus the hunt. Animals that match their edges, such as zebras, are harder to chase because it impacts their predator’s depth perception. On the other hand, chameleons are harder to hunt because they use environmental colouration. Inspired by animals, and in need of cloaking solutions, humans began to adopt these techniques.
Soldiers used to wear forest green or field beige to blend in with their surroundings. By World War I, artists were hired to create “dazzle ships”: vessels with optical illusions painted on their exterior to alter how the human eye perceived them in a combat situation. To play tricks on perception, artists blended psychology with human physiology and thus began the science of wartime camouflage.
With the improvement of fractal-camouflage (army print) clothing, true invisibility is becoming a reality and it isn’t absurd to think that we will have invisibility cloaks in the near future. Building on the concept of naturally occurring fractals, humans have advanced this technology so that at every angle and scale that object is viewed, it has a repeating pattern, allowing the wearer to become almost completely invisible! This is due to the combination of depth perception and the eye’s inability to process rapid changes in light and colour. The exact science is well protected by federal agencies, but don’t be surprised if we see this technology on a broader scale in the near future.
Much like the pattern itself, camouflage will continue to adapt to its surroundings and evolve far beyond what we see today. It’s one of the rare instances where an inability to see isn’t a vision problem. In fact, it’s a sign of really good camouflage! Want to learn more about how humans have adopted animal characteristics for advancements in technology? Read our blog on how insects see in 3D, and the affect it can have on vision technology advancements.