Advancing the hunter's science of not being seen

The Baltimore Sun

This is a column about nothing. Or, as the Maryland-based company W.L. Gore and Associates calls it, "the science of nothing."

Nothing is what scientists and military camouflage experts say deer see when a hunter wears a jacket and pants made of Optifade, a new pattern that will go on the market next season.

For years, hunters have donned gear with leafy patterns, such as Mossy Oak and RealTree, that are supposed to make humans look like shrubbery. Blending in, it was thought, worked for hunters the way it worked for a geeky transfer student at a new high school.

But that strategy was grounded in people imagining what deer could see - shapes and colors - not what deer actually see.

Enter Jay Neitz, an animal vision expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin, whose specialty is giving eye tests to wildlife, 40 or so species to date.

"With enough patience and time, any vision test you can do on a human you can do on an animal," he says. "Deer are the hardest to test. A test that takes 10 minutes on a human takes six months on a deer."

But by training deer to make choices between cards with different colors (and giving them treats when they chose correctly), Neitz was able to scope out the strengths and weaknesses.

Deer, it turns out, have a fabulous field of vision - about 280 degrees thanks to eyes on either side of their head - but because they have such a large picture window, their brains can't spend a lot of time analyzing what their eyeballs are picking up. With a field of vision a little better than 180 degrees, humans have the same problem, but on a smaller scale.

"We think we see everything, but we don't," Neitz explains. "The biggest weakness animals have, and that includes humans, is the ability to extract information from what is seen. You can have a very sophisticated camera up front but ... the bottleneck is the brain."

So a deer tries to match shapes to what amounts to "danger flash cards" - my term - in its brain as it decides whether to continue browsing or clear out, pronto. Experts call it "pattern matching."

Neitz uncovered two other major vision weaknesses: Deer are lousy in the color department, seeing just yellow and blue along with black, white and gray (green, for example, is just another shade of gray to a deer), and they are so-so when it comes to picking out detail.

"There is a famous optical illusion where a picture of Abraham Lincoln's head is made out of large squares of different lightness," he says. "When you look at it and can resolve the squares clearly, it does not look like anything. However, when you blur your eyes, you recognize Lincoln very clearly. A [deer's] vision is like ours when we make it intentionally blurry."

So a hunter's camo with great leafy detail means nothing to a deer, which picks out the bigger picture - the hunter's outline.

Instead of blending in, Optifade confuses the brain and mixes up the danger flash cards by breaking up the outline of the hunter.

"Jay has had the knowledge forever, but no one adapted it to hunting," says Brad Yeomans, a manager with Gore's hunting products team.

And that brings us to Timothy O'Neill, a consultant on the Optifade project. A retired West Point lieutenant colonel, O'Neill is known as the "father of digital camouflage," the pixelated stuff he developed in 1974 that has evolved to the designs being worn by today's warriors.

His first field test of the digital pattern known as Dual-Tex was at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he and his colleagues painted an old armored personnel carrier with a 2-inch paint roller and watched the vehicle disappear as they walked away at lunchtime.

O'Neill, a former tactical officer during the Vietnam War who retired after Desert Storm, says he has come to hate the term "digital camo" as too simplistic, and he scoffs at camouflage patterns he calls "design statements put together by Abercrombie and Fitch."

Optifade, he says, employs two visual tricks: a micro pattern of different colored squares to match the complexity of the background and a macro pattern of squares to break up the outline.

But how do we know it works?

"I'm a vision scientist, and I know these things," Neitz says with a laugh.

Seriously, guys.

O'Neill explains that based on Neitz's research, the development team was able to create image-processing software that filtered colors and vision sharpness to duplicate what a deer sees. Humans then viewed the pictures to see how quickly they could pick out a camouflaged item. Optifade fooled the humans pretending to be deer.

Sitka Gear, a clothing manufacturer based in California's wine country, will be the first to produce a line of hunting wear. The launch is set for May 2009.

The first pattern will be for use in scrublands, "but it will work in the hills of Pennsylvania and the flatlands of Maryland. It will work anywhere," he insists.

O'Neill hopes to tweak the design to create regional patterns and would like to offer something specifically for waterfowl hunters.

"This looks different, and for some it may be hard to try something new," O'Neill says. "But the people who care, who carefully buy gear to look for an edge - this is the edge."

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