Making Sense of Digital Camouflage

Much has already been written about the improvements and benefits offered by digital patterns over traditional or “analogue” patterns. Besides the enhanced disruption and dithering effects offered by digital (especially pixelated) patterns, the ability to use sophisticated graphics software and pattern-generating algorithms also means that patterns can be created and optimised quicker, easier and more effectively than ever before.However, for many people digital means pixelated patterns that are made from little coloured squares and clumps of squares – and many people also assume that any pattern that has squared or jagged edges to the pattern shapes is “digital”.

Latvian multi-terrain "Legoflage"

But just because a pattern has squared or jagged edges doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “digital”, nor does a ”digital” pattern have to be comprised of pixelated shapes.  The Soviet “birch leaf” camo of WWII and “sun bunnies” camo of the Cold War are good examples of “analogue” patterns that are mistaken as digital.  And Italian Vegetato is a digital pattern that is mistaken as analogue.

Isn't digital.

Is digital (fractals rather than pixels).

So, why the confusion? Well, as they sang in “South Park: the Movie”, Blame Canada! ;-)  As soon as Canadian Pattern Disruptive Material (aka, CADPAT) broke cover it launched the trend and set the standard with its pixelated pattern shapes.

CADPAT Temperate Woodland and Arid Regions patterns

Strictly speaking, a “digital” pattern is simply one which has been designed with the aid of computer-assisted design and simulation software, and which also usually involves the use of fractal or pattern-generating graphics software as well. Pixel shapes are used in many of these patterns because work by Colonel Tim O’Neill (ret.) and others has shown that the pixel shapes fool the human eye by making the pattern appear more dithered and less likely to be noticed and identified. In fact, Colonel O’Neill’s original work in this area – back in 1976(!) – didn’t involve the use of computer-aided design at all.  His prototype “Dual-Tex” patterns were hand-painted onto vehicles and aircraft in various configurations and tested live out in the field.

Another area of confusion is about whether you can designate digital patterns as “Gen.I”, “Gen.II”, Gen.III”, etc.  Well, my personal view – born out of having studied this subject extensively – is that using these terms would be inappropriate.  Use of “Gen.I”, Gen.II”, etc. would imply that there has been a linear development path over time – and this is not really true.  It also implies that there is a clear and accepted definition of what constitutes Gen.I, Gen.II, Gen.III etc. – and again, this is not the case.  Finally, there is also the inherent implication that Gen.II must be better than Gen.I and Gen.III must be better than Gen.II – to make this type of classification would require thorough testing or review by an independent team of experts, or at least common agreement across the market, and neither of these is in place (nor likely to be attempted). So, in the end, I have decided to classify existing patterns as Type A, Type B or Type C, according to the type of pattern they use – I also chose the introduction of CADPAT as my starting point, rather than going back to earlier experiments – as this was the moment when digital camouflage went public and the trend began.  I’ve outlined below what I consider to be the defining characteristics of each type, and why they are different.

The Classifications

Type A

Technically, these could also be called “mono-pattern” schemes as they employ a pretty straight-forward pattern of shapes that follow the basic rules of traditional camouflage design.  In other words, a consistent pattern of shapes usually comprised of two dominant colours plus a couple of accent colours.  Notably, there is no combination of “micro-pattern” and “macro-pattern” – which means that these patterns have a relatively “non-textured” appearance.

Examples include; CADPAT (and all of its derivatives; MARPAT, UCP, NAVPAT, etc.), Slovakian pixel camo (pictured below), Finnish M/05, and many others.

Type B

Technically, these could also be called “duo-pattern” schemes as they combine a micro-pattern and a macro-pattern to enhance disruption and concealment through a more textured appearance.  The term “macro-pattern” refers to the larger shapes which disrupt the symmetry of the overall pattern – and thus disrupt the shape of the wearer.  The term “micro-pattern” refers to the elements (basic shapes) used in the pattern – and in particular to the way in which they are used to further dither (blur) or fade the boundaries of the macro-pattern shapes.  Among other benefits, this combination produces a more textured appearance that provides both greater disruption and greater blending abilities – and over a wider range of distances.

Examples of this type include; Jordanian KA2, Afghan Forest (aka, HyperStealth Spec4ce Forest – pictured below), Mirage Camo from Bulldog Equipment, Roggenwolf Kumul 2, etc.

A conceptual temperate-rainforest sceme for ground attack aircraft. I designed this pattern in the spring of 1995 using the pixel editting features of PC Paintbrush, and then "skinned" it on to the OV10 drawing using CORELdraw.

Winter/Snow variation of the pattern above, also designed in the spring of 1995. At the time, I was reading a lot of Cyber-Punk literature and these pixilated camo patterns were done as proofs-of-concept for a story I was working on. I didn't find out about CADPAT, O'Neill, etc. until several years later.

Type C

The third category is for the patterns that “break the mould”.  These are the hybrid patterns that might combine features of analogue or photo-realistic patterns with digital design characteristics.  In some cases they include the micro-macro patterns of the Type B category (such as PenCott from Hyde Definition), and in some cases they introduce new concepts – such as the boundary layer fades of MultiCam, the multi-sided pixel shapes of A-TACS or the “splattered” fractal shapes of Italian Vegetata.

Examples in this category include; MultiCam and Multi-Terrain Pattern from Crye Precision, PenCott from Hyde Definition (pictured below), A-TACS from Digital Conceal Systems, Italian Vegetata, etc.

Type D?

Perhaps someone somewhere is perfecting an invisibility cloak, or a workable form of active adaptive camouflage , but so far the true “chameleon suit” or “invisibility cloak” remains the province of science fiction and video games, and creatures such as the Cuttlefish (as below).

Multi-Terrain vs. Terrain-Specific

This is another debate which is likely to continue raging for some time – although I think the weight of opinion and observation is now swinging more in the direction of “multi-terrain”.  The recent selection by the British Army of the new “Multi-Terrain Pattern” and the US Army’s selection of MultiCam for use in Afghanistan will have a huge influence on design, thinking and decision-making going forward.Quite a few other countries have in fact already gone ahead and either adopted MultiCam, to some extent, or developed their own derivatives.The US Army have also proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (hopefully), with their “Universal Camouflage Pattern” that a single pattern cannot be effective everywhere.  And speaking of the US Army, it will be very interesting to see the final result of their current project to find a replacement for UCP.When you think about it, a move towards multi-terrain patterns makes a lot of sense.  With the possible exception of a handful of very small countries, just about every country has a mix of different terrains within its borders – and when you throw external expeditionary operations into the equation then you really start to see the limitations of single-terrain camouflage patterns. So, I expect that we’ll see more countries devoting more efforts towards producing a multi-terrain pattern that works well across most typical environments; with supplemental patterns for those environments that have truly unique characteristics (such as alpine/arctic snow or open deserts). Of course, having a uniform printed with the best camouflage pattern in the world would be rendered useless if the soldiers individual equipment covers it up with a pattern or colour that ruins its effectiveness.  Add to that a black weapon and you wipe out many of the improvements in non-detectability that you’d gain from having a good camo pattern on the uniform.   

Conclusion

The sluggish recovery from the global recession, and the related pressures on public and defence spending, could also have an impact upon decisions about new camouflage pattern development and deployment by countries as well.  And finally, the continued out-sourcing of manufacturing and production of camouflage clothing to factories in China and other Asian countries with cheap labour is also bound to factor into future decisions as well.The most interesting question though, from my perspective, is whether countries will continue to pursue the traditional policy of developing and deploying their own unique, distinctive patterns as opposed to taking a common approach – especially coalition or allied countries.  One need only look at how many countries have adopted British DPM or US Woodland patterns – or close copies thereof – in the past, and how many are now adopting MultiCam or MultiCam derived / inspired patterns now.  In fact, many people would argue that the main reason that the American and British “big army” chose MultiCam for Afghanistan was because of its prevalent use among their “small army” (i.e., special operations forces) units.

Copyright PEO Soldier, US Army

Ultimately, the future will probably be pretty much defined by whichever pattern direction the US Army chooses to follow once it’s made a final decision in its future standard camouflage selection process.  As the main global trendsetter in the camouflage fashion parade, many countries will simply copy it, whilst others will take a more thoughtful and unique approach. Whichever way things pan out, camouflage is sure to be an interesting and dynamic subject area for some time.

 

Post-Script

What a difference a year makes.  The new direction (no doubt driven by the US Army’s high profile camouflage improvement initiative) is to use a multi-terrain or “transitional” pattern as a base line pattern, with “woodland/jungle” and “arid/desert” patterns in the inventory as well for those types of environments.  So maybe we’ll almost end up going pretty much in full circle by the time the dust has settled…

 

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18 Responses to Making Sense of Digital Camouflage

  1. Pingback: The Age of Digital Camouflage

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  5. Decent Weasel says:

    Wow, this is one of the best articles I’ve read on this in a long time. The distinction between “pixel” and “fractal” is a crucial one; I remember I was really into fractals back in ’02 and MARPAT just about knocked me out when I saw it. The only thing more astonishing was how many people completely missed the point and started talking about the squares.

  6. Riaan Rossouw says:

    @ BrendanActually the Aussies just used a PC to calc the optimal colour scheme, not the pattern.Why they picked Duck Hunter splotches is unknown, I’m guessing the guy that made the decision has long since retired, so the information is lost.

  7. VAJT says:

    Great article!I would love to see a comparison of the Type C patterns (MultiCam, PenCott, A-TACS, Italian Vegetata…etc.), it would make it easier to compare the effectiveness as many comparisons are putting Type A, B and C all together and not sure if that’s really comparing more apples to oranges.Do you know of other Type C patterns?—–JT—–

  8. brendan says:

    funny how the aussies used a computer to create their camouflage uniforms…and ended up with WW2 ‘duck hunter’ pattern(the colors were different,the pattern identical).maybe the computer they used was a commodor? digital,fractal,pointalist,analog..makes my noggin spin.who knows?..in the ‘world of the future’ maybe uniforms will be printed up ‘site specific/on demand’ from a gizmo on the back of a humvee.love that ‘legoflage’ though.

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  10. strikehold says:

    Hey Sixt – not sure which “typical hunting patterns” you mean. I know of only one (OptiFade) which is digital – and this would be a Type B pattern. As for sticks-and-leaves – they look TOO specific.

    • Sixt says:

      “Strictly speaking, a “digital” pattern is simply one which has been designed with the aid of computer-assisted design and simulation software, and which also usually involves the use of fractal or pattern-generating graphics software as well.”Of course, you are right – only the first part of your definition holds true for most hunting camouflage patterns (let’s take Realtree and Mossy Oak as the most prominent specimen). Still, computer assisted design is used here to produce the 3-dimensional effects of overlaying foreground/background patterns.As a collector who is solely interested in the effectiveness of a given pattern, not its military/hunting background, to me hunting patterns seem to be greatly underestimated by the camo community. Them being too much restricted to a given surrounding is a myth, I think – of course a myth the producing companies nurture themselves in the hope of increasing their sales.Let’s take Realtree Hardwoods Green, for example. I live in Germany, and during 3/4 of the year, this one seems to be one of the most universal pattern for my country. Even in the Austrian Alps, before a rocky background, it worked perfectly. Compare it with multicam: Everyone’s crazy about it, but at least here in Germany, it’s not multi at all. It works brilliantly before dried out grass, and that’s it – for anything else, it’s much too bright. As soon as the theatres of modern warfare will change again from the Middle East to jungle or moderate environments, all those armies who switch now to multicam will wonder where they stored their good old DPM/woodland uniforms…

      • strikehold says:

        You make some very good points Sixt – I still think its debatable as to whether computer-aided, photo-realistic patterns could really be considered digital though. But it is debatable, not definitive…You’re sort of right about MultiCam – it actually works pretty well in many types of temperate terrain as well; just not in really lush, green environments. Which is why they call it “multi” and not “all”. ;-)

  11. Sixt says:

    Once again, nice article. Where in this categorization would you put the typical hunting patterns? And what do you think why not one single military sticks-and-leafs-pattern exists? Because they look too funny?

  12. Indy1146 says:

    ‘not sure that the US use of UCP has proven much – other that they should have paid attention to their own camo test results and adopted eith Crye’s MultiCam or the modified “Desert Brush” pattern from the outset. The “universal camouflage ” was never meant to be effective everywhere, just a good compromise for varied terrain.

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  15. kazik says:

    Really nice entry.Although I think the Finnish M/05 is actually a “type B” digital pattern.

    • strikehold says:

      No, I’d say its definitely a Type A – look again at the different definitions, compare M/05 against a true Type B like Spec4ce. I really don’t see any combination of Micro and Macro patterns in M/05.