99% Invisible episode on Dazzle camouflage

The great podcast and radio show "99% Invisible"  featured the Picasso-zebra camouflage of World War I ships called "Dazzle" or "Razzle Dazzle" in its most recent episode. The story of Dazzle is really cool, and I did a post about it recently for Blue Ant, inspired by the appearance of the camouflage in William Gibson's latest book Zero History. Definitely listen to the podcast episode, and subscribe to the show for that matter, but I thought I'd repost my little piece on Dazzle from October, below. You can also read an unrelated profile I wrote about 99% Invisible and host Roman Mars for the East Bay Express back in August here.

Razzle Dazzle, on 99% Invisible


Dazzle Camouflage

How do you camouflage an inflatable mylar drone in the shape of a penguin? You really can’t, but for the climax of William Gibson's latest novel Zero History, one character opts for a disruptive paint job known as “dazzle” as a way to break up its gestalt.

“The result wouldn’t conceal the penguin against any background at all, particularly the sky, but broke it up visually, made it difficult to read as an object.”

Dazzle, or “razzle dazzle” is a form of camouflage invented in World War I by British artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson. The Royal Navy, unable to conceal its ships, went for something altogether different by painting them with loud, irregular black-and-white patterns. The result was a floating Picasso, certainly visible, but hard to make out its size, shape and speed. German submarines needed to know all three to successfully calculate a hit with a torpedo, so turning British ships into a series of discordant shapes did a far better job of protecting them than trying to make them blend into their surroundings.

Most camouflage aims to do the latter, using blending techniques to make an object look so similar to its surroundings so the eye can’t pick it out. The clustered blobs of 1980s Rambo clothes, or the 16-bit rave wear of the modern Army. But sometimes more powerful is a different approach, making the image disruptive instead of blended. In the case of the ships, erratic black-and-white patterns confuse the visual system’s ability to perceive it as a unit, making it appear more like a series of unrelated objects instead of one uniform shape.

A similar, modern use is what NYU student Adam Harvey calls his “CV Dazzle” project, in which he created hair and makeup styling that wouldmake a person unrecognizable to computer facial recognition. By shaping the hair into blades of disruptive color, or painting black-and-white shapes surrounding facial features, Harvey was able to disrupt his models’ faces, protecting them from computer recognition.

The most effective camouflage uses both disruptive and blending techniques, so some elements are visually confusing and others appear to be part of the surroundings, making the subject indistinguishable. But alas, in the case of the WWI battleship or a floating mylar penguin, sometimes you just can’t blend in. So you turn on the Dazzle and settle for confusion.

Dazzle Camouflage History


CV Dazzle

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