Optifade camouflage is the first camouflage designed using the science of ungulate vision, not human vision.
After more than 30 years in the hunting business, one thing I can say for sure is that there have been a boat load of products introduced over the years that claim to be the best thing since sliced bread that, upon further inspection, prove to be nothing but hype. So when another comes along, ‘Mr. Skeptical’ – me – casts a sideways glance and asks the question my grandpa used to always ask: ‘Can you show me how it works?’
So when W.L. Gore & Associates , makers of those wonderful Gore-Tex and Windstopper membranes that really do work better than anything ever invented, approached me last year to be one of the first to test a ‘radical new camouflage’ called Optifade, my spider sense started tingling.
And then, they showed me.
The Science of Nothing
The traditional approach to hiding from game has been to appear as something familiar to deer, elk and other ungulates through camouflage patterns of sticks and leaves, called ‘mimicry’ camouflage. Gore Optifade is the first concealment system designed around animal vision, not human eyesight.
Gore calls it the Science of Nothing because, unlike mimicry camouflage, Optifade prevents ungulates from recognizing you as a predator, even if they see slight movement, making you nothing in their eyes. It does this by combining a micro-pattern of small fragmented shapes that consider the way ungulates perceive color and space, making you fade into the background, the same way a leopard’s spots help it evade detection while poised to ambush, and a macro-pattern of large fragmented shapes that break up the symmetry of the human body, making you unrecognizable as a predator, similar to the way a tiger’s stripes break up the shape of its body as it stalks prey. In contrast traditional camouflage, which relies upon mimicry, makes you a recognizable mass of gray at standard engagement ranges, registering you as a threat to prey.
CO muley: Brad Yeomans wore Optifade when he killed this dandy Colorado muley in October 2008.
What Ungulates See
One reason I have always respected Gore as a company is that it brings no product of any kind to market unless there is solid science behind it, and Optifade is no exception. For this project Gore teamed up with Dr. Jay Neitz, now a Vision Scientist at the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle, and Lt. Col. Timothy O’Neill (ret.), PhD, who pioneered the U.S. Army’s digital camouflage as a researcher at West Point. Dr. Neitz’ research indicates that ungulate eye placement is designed for an extremely wide field of view — nearly 280 degrees, and a quick scan of the horizon for potential threats. The trade-off is diminished visual acuity. While humans see 20/20, an ungulate sees around 20/40, making deer vision slightly blurrier than ours. And, while humans have a full range of color vision, ungulates lack the receptors for tones in the red spectrum, viewing the world in shades of yellow, blue and gray.
“A camouflage that makes a person look like a tree can work if you’re in a place where other trees look like that” Dr. Neitz said. “But what if you’re somewhere else, or if the deer sees you move? This new camouflage is a totally different approach. It fools the deer’s vision system at its roots, so that it doesn’t recognize the person as anything.”
At Dr. Neitz’ laboratory he tests some animal’s vision by training them to press touch screens, but it was a bit trickier working with deer. So he and other researchers at the University of Georgia showed them three cards at a time and rewarded them with food pellets when they picked out the right pattern by pushing a button with their noses.
“We can measure in animals anything you can measure in a human being and every bit as accurately” Dr. Neitz said. “The difference is that a vision test that might take 10 minutes in a human can take six months with a deer.” The research revealed that deer vision is a little blurrier than human vision, about 20/40 and that deer see the world roughly like a human with red-green colorblindness. Their eyes have only two color receptors (unlike the three in the human eye). Fortunately for hunters, they have a hard time seeing blaze orange. But they’re more sensitive than humans to light at the blue end of the spectrum.
Bob Robb got right in this Wyoming pronghorn’s face in October 2008 while wearing Optifade camouflage.
From Research to Camouflage
After discovering what deer can, and cannot, see, Dr. Neitz and Lt. Col. O’Neill began work with Guy Cramer at HyperStealth Biotechnology, a company specializing in the design of digital military camouflage to work out colors and shapes. It’s all done with algorithmic computers that ended up using tricks employed by Mother Nature the ability to fade into the background, like the micro-pattern of a leopard’s spots do, as well as the macro-pattern of a tiger’s stripes that break up the shape of its body as it moves through the tall grass.
“The prey can detect the tiger’s movement,” Dr. Neitz says, “But if the shape isn’t recognized as the outline of a tiger, nothing registers in the higher center of the prey’s brain.”
Lt. Col. O’Neill, a man I had the pleasure of having dinner with last year is fascinating to speak with. Before he retired from the engineering psychology department at the United States Military Academy, he developed the pixel digital camouflage so familiar today because it is worn by the U.S. Army.
“When we developed digital camouflage, we asked a basic question, is the purpose of camouflage to match the background or to break up the shape of the target?” Lt. O’Neill said. “The answer is, you do both by creating a micro-pattern that matches the ‘busyness’ of the background and makes it harder to detect the target, and you overlay it with a macro-pattern that makes it harder to recognize the shape of the target once you’ve detected it.”
Does It Work?
I hunted deer, elk, pronghorn and black bears exclusively in Optifade clothing in fall, 2008 and spring, 2009. All I can say is, I got close. Very close. A lot.
The other question is, will hunters accept a new, radically different camouflage pattern that looks nothing like what they have been used to wearing all their lives, even if it is based on science?
Before writing this column I did a brother-in-law survey of a select few stores that carry Optifade garments, including such well known chains as Scheel’s and Cabela’s. All said the same thing, Optifade garments are among their biggest sellers. It’s also created a huge buzz on many of the online hunting forums. That tells me the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!”