October 11, 2009 in Outdoors

Digital camo revolutionizing deer hunts

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Courtesy of W.L. Gore and Associates photo

Sitka Stormfront Jacket with Gore Optifade Concealment and Gore-Tex fabric technology brings digital camouflage concepts to clothing.Courtesy of W.L. Gore and Associates
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Camouflage in history

1590: Native North Americans drape themselves with skins of animals when stalking prey.

1830-1850: Tweed recognized in the United Kingdom as the first moisture-resistant, durable fabric popular for sporting activities and visual concealment properties for hunters.

1892-1909: American artist and naturalist Abbot Thayer’s research on protective coloration in nature culminates in publication of “Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise through Color and Pattern.”

1900-1913: The art world’s abstract “Cubist” movement influences Abbot Thayer and British counterpart John Kerr to develop “dazzle painting” of ships to distort a vessel’s course, speed and range to fool enemy U-boats during World War I.

1915-1918: “Camouflage” born when the French army creates a new unit employing artists to create visual concealment methods. By 1918, the use of military camouflage was common.

1980: Trebark pattern introduced by Jim Crumley as the first hunting-specific mimicry camouflage.

1995: Digital camouflage patterns developed and tested in Canada; adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001

Camouflage clothing for hunters has been developed much as fishing lures are marketed to anglers: Looking good to the consumer is perhaps more important than what the critter sees.

A new camouflage pattern available in limited markets this fall claims to be the first visual concealment pattern based on scientific research into what animals can and cannot see.

Optifade concealment, targeted to bowhunters, doesn’t look like a photograph of a tree or a marsh. The pattern was developed by W.L. Gore and Associates along with experts who helped design modern digital camouflage for the military.

Gore also received scientific consultation from Jay Neitz, an animal vision expert at the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle.

“Having done testing with animals and predicting what they can and can’t see, we’ve gotten so we’re very good about it,” Neitz said.

With a slight twist of their head, deer, elk and other ungulates can see 360 degrees around them. That’s one of their advantages. While they don’t see fine detail as well as humans, ungulates are able to use contrast to pick out larger objects better than humans, he said.

The Optifade digital camouflage keys on these factors by combining:

•A “macro pattern” of large fragmented shapes that break up the symmetry of the human body similar to the way a tiger’s stripes break up the shape of its body as it stalks prey.

•A “micro-pattern” of small fragmented shapes that play off the way ungulates perceive color and space. This helps a hunter fade into the background the way a leopard’s spots help it avoid detection while poised to ambush.

“The idea of these patterns is to disrupt the visual system’s ability to recognize the human form,” Neitz said.

The trend in camouflage patterns for nearly 30 years has relied on mimicking natural surroundings, he said. However, at certain distances these realistic patterns blur into a mass of grey in a deer’s eye. That can signal something’s out of place, he said.

“I’m not here to knock realistic camouflage, but I’d say the detail is really too fine,” he said

Digital camo suggests shapes and colors without actually being shapes and colors. Think of it as visual white noise.

A hunter may be at an advantage looking like a tree trunk when he’s sitting still next to a tree. “But when a tree trunk moves or stops away from a tree, it can look very unnatural to a deer,” Neitz said.

Optifade concealment is designed to help a hunter blend into the flow of space.

Many sportsmen already are familiar with Gore-Tex, the original waterproof-breathable fabrics used from boots and gloves to jackets, fishing waders and hats. Gore-Tex has been incorporated in camouflage clothing from other manufacturers in a variety of patterns for many years, but this is the first time Gore has developed its own camo pattern.

Gore teamed with Sitka, a sportsman’s gear company founded in 2005 by hunters who wanted to incorporate mountaineering technology into hunting gear.

While the first-generation products target archery hunters, the Optifade concealment pattern could be effective even with hunter orange colors, Neitz said.

“Maybe down the line Gore will consider that,” he said.

Neitz was on a team of researchers that found hot pink was the best color for being highly visible to the human eye yet the lowest visibility to the ungulate’s eye.

“But that didn’t go anywhere,” he said.

Some of the Optifade jackets have red logos on the exterior. Deer and elk are not sensitive to deep red colors, Neitz said.

Is the Optifade concealment as effective for hunting predators as it is for ungulates?

“Dogs and other carnivores have similar vision to ungulates,” he said. “Nature didn’t want to give either one too much of an advantage.”

Neitz said he jumped at the chance Gore gave him to work with “the digital camouflage experts who revolutionized concealment for the military.”

“Other camo is effective,” he said, “but I think these (Optifade) camouflages are more effective and better under a wider range of conditions.”

The main test, of course, will be how the patterns look to the hunters who might buy them. In that case, Optifade appears to be a winner.

Gore created a test that put Optifade head-to-head with the leading camouflage manufacturers. Hunters dressed in the products were photographed in different field situations and the photos were rendered dichromatic as an ungulate would see them.

When hunters were asked to sit at a computer and pick out the camouflaged hunters in the pictures, “there was no doubt (Optifade) was a better product – a lot better,” Neitz said.

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