The "Camouflage Machine": optimising patterns for camouflage and visibility

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Experimental Psychology

Abstract

Sometimes it is very important not to be seen: a well camouflaged tiger may catch its prey rather than go hungry; a concealed wildlife photographer may get the shot; and whilst much of the infrastructure of the modern environment (mobile telephone masts, wind farms etc.) is necessary, it is far from aesthetically pleasing - reducing visibility may be the difference between getting planning permission or not. In other words, as well as the obvious military applications, a systematic means of minimising the visibility of any object by finding its optimal camouflage pattern for a particular environment could be used in many other ways.
Just as it is sometimes important to minimise visibility, it can also be equally important to maximise it. From signalling in animals to maximising the visibility of warning signs, emergency vehicles, motorbikes and cyclists, there are plenty of examples where making something highly salient is important.
How could colour patterns to maximise or minimise visibility be created? There is no universally optimal camouflage: what works well in one place (the spots of a leopard, lying in wait in dappled foliage) may be less effective elsewhere (the same animal in a desert). Important factors which determine visibility include an object's size and viewing distance, its pattern of movement, and its height above the ground; the nature and variability of the environment(s) it will be concealed in, the lighting etc.
We will construct the "camouflage machine": a process to determine optimum camouflage or signalling patterns for a specific environment. Using state-of-the-art computational modelling techniques, our methodology (implemented in a computer programme) will allow the comparison and assessment of different approaches to visual concealment and signalling.
The camouflage machine will first be validated using two of our datasets of images (big cats and snakes). We will then cross validate the results for human observers and our existing computational model of the human visual system. At this point, we will be able to use the camouflage machine to assess the visibility of man-made objects, from military materiel to street furniture. Finally, we will release a publicly available application which, given an environment (characterised by photographs from this environment, a template of the object to be concealed, and a characterisation of the illumination in this environment), attempts to characterise the visibility function (the function mapping pattern characteristics to visibility), and provide an estimate of the minima (or maxima) of this function - the colouration pattern that would minimise (or maximise) the object's visibility in that environment.
In short, the project will yield a means of identifying the best covering pattern for any object in any environment, whether the aim is conspicuity or concealment.

Planned Impact

Impact Summary
As this project will evaluate an unstudied property of materials that are both widespread in nature and of growing use in a range of industries, there are a range of beneficiaries in both academia and industry. Due to the charismatic and appealing nature of both iridescence and many of the species that produce it, this research will also have strong possibilities for public engagement activities.
Main beneficiaries of the project:
1) Industrial third parties (military, Cyclists' Touring Club, emergency services)
2) Public policymakers (Highways agency)
3) General public
4) Researchers, PI and Co-Is.
1) Industrial Third Parties.
The ability to specify an optimal camouflage pattern for any given environment has obvious implications for the military. Not least, it will allow expensive and lengthy field trials to be dramatically reduced, as the range of possible solutions can be constrained in advance using the "Camouflage Machine". We have existing relationships with QinetiQ (see supporting letter), DSTL and Malvern Optical, and are establishing one with BAE Systems. Through our established interactions, and by establishing new ones, this project will not only assist the maintenance of the UK's pre-eminence in camouflage research, but will also assist with the translation of that research into insights for several world leading UK industries.
The flip side of concealment is conspicuity, and this is something that the Cyclists' Touring Club has an interest in: what is the best way to make cyclists highly visible in cluttered and noisy urban environments? This line of enquiry should also be of interested to the emergency services: can fire engines, ambulances etc. be made optimally visible?
2) Public Policy Makers. The flip side of the concealment is visibility. The "Camouflage Machine" can be used to increase the visibility of street signs and reduce that of other street furniture. This has both safety and aesthetic implications, assessment of which could be of benefit to public policy makers such as the Highways Agency.
3) General Public. This topic would provide an excellent vehicle to provide activities that would engage the public. Camouflage lends itself to engaging demonstrations, and the "Camouflage Machine" would allow the public to see how to develop a pattern that is either well hidden, or very salient, in real time.
4) Researchers, PI and Co-Is. The two researchers employed on this grant would gain extensive training experience in an interdisciplinary range of novel techniques and experimental methods that have both academic and industrial relevance. As they will be closely collaborating throughout the project, this will allow a behavioural scientist to gain skills in computational modelling techniques, and vice versa. This is something we have previously achieved, with one recent PhD student from a psychology background now working as a postdoc in biology, and another student with a biology background now working on a psychophysics and modelling postdoc.
The PI and Co-Is will also benefit through the development of the "Camouflage Machine", as we predict that it will be of interest to many potential collaborators in both academia and industry, leading to additional future partnerships.

Publications

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Costello L (2020) False holes as camouflage in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

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Cuthill I (2019) Camouflage in a dynamic world in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences

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Cuthill IC (2017) The biology of color. in Science (New York, N.Y.)

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Fennell JG (2021) The Camouflage Machine: Optimizing protective coloration using deep learning with genetic algorithms. in Evolution; international journal of organic evolution

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Matchette S (2020) Underwater caustics disrupt prey detection by a reef fish in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

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Matchette S (2019) Dappled light disrupts prey detection by masking movement in Animal Behaviour

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Matchette SR (2020) Correction to 'Underwater caustics disrupt prey detection by a reef fish'. in Proceedings. Biological sciences

 
Description We have constructed a novel method to exploit Generative Adversarial Networks to simulate an evolutionary arms race between the camouflage of a synthetic prey item and its predator.
Patterns evolved using our methods provide progressively more effective concealment and outperform standard camouflage techniques.
Our method will be invaluable, particularly for biologists, for rapidly developing and testing optimal camouflage or signalling patterns in multiple environments.

We have also used image processing techniques to embed targets into realistic environments, psychophysics to estimate detectability, and deep neural networks to interpolate between sampled colours. This process allows the identification of the optimum colours for concealment and visibility for any environment (e.g. jungle) and any viewer (e.g. a red-green colour-blind dichromats, typical for non-human mammals).
This framework allows the comparison of any visual system with any other, in any environment. Such comparisons can shed light questions such as why some predators (e.g. tigers) seem, at least to humans, to have colouring that would appear detrimental to ambush hunting.
Exploitation Route See entries under "Further funding".
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Security and Diplomacy,Transport

 
Description This are now two currently classified projects.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Automatic disease detection and monitoring in calves
Amount £609,617 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/S00128X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2018 
End 05/2021
 
Description Concealing 3D objects
Amount £739,355 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/S00873X/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2021
 
Description Impact Acceleration Account Knowledge Transfer Secondment: Optimising high visibility patterns for bicycle apparel using deep learning
Amount £37,241 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 10/2021
 
Title Data from: Overcoming the detectability costs of symmetrical colouration 
Description For camouflaged prey, enhanced conspicuousness due to bilaterally symmetrical colouration increases predation risk. The ubiquity of symmetrical body patterns in nature is therefore paradoxical, perhaps explicable through tight developmental constraints. Placing patterns that would be salient when symmetrical (e.g. high contrast markings) away from the axis of symmetry is one possible strategy to reduce the predation cost of symmetrical colouration. Artificial camouflaged prey with symmetrical patterns placed at different distances from the axis were used in both visual search tasks with humans and survival experiments with wild avian predators. Targets were less conspicuous when symmetrical patterning was placed outside a 'critical zone' near the midline. To assess whether real animals have evolved as predicted from these experiments, the saliency of features at different distances from the midline was measured in the cryptically coloured forewings of 36 Lepidopteran species. Salience, both in absolute terms and relative to wing area, was greatest away from the axis of symmetry. Our work therefore demonstrates that prey morphologies may have evolved to exploit a loophole in the ability of mammalian and avian visual systems to spot symmetrical patterns. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.jm63xsj6b
 
Title False holes as camouflage 
Description Long noted by naturalists, leaf mimicry provides some of the most impressive examples of camouflage through masquerade. Many species of leaf-mimicking Lepidoptera also sport wing markings that closely resemble irregularly shaped holes caused by decay or insect damage. Despite proposals that such markings can either enhance resemblance to damaged leaves or act to disrupt surface appearance through false depth cues, to our knowledge, no attempt has been made to establish exactly how these markings function, or even whether they confer a survival benefit to prey. Here, in two field experiments using artificial butterfly-like targets, we show that false hole markings provide significant survival benefits against avian predation. Furthermore, in a computer-based visual search experiment, we demonstrate that detection of such targets by humans is impeded in a similar fashion. Equally contrasting light marks do not have the same effect; indeed, they lead to increased detection. We conclude that the mechanism is the disruption of the otherwise homogeneous wing surface (surface disruptive camouflage) and that, by resembling the holes sometimes found in real leaves, the disruptive benefits are not offset by conspicuousness costs. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.866t1g1n2
 
Title The Camouflage Machine: Optimising protective colouration using deep learning with genetic algorithms 
Description Evolutionary biologists frequently wish to measure the fitness of alternative phenotypes using behavioural experiments. However, many phenotypes are complex. For example colouration: camouflage aims to make detection harder, while conspicuous signals (e.g. for warning or mate attraction) require the opposite. Identifying the hardest and easiest to find patterns is essential for understanding the evolutionary forces that shape protective colouration, but the parameter space of potential patterns (coloured visual textures) is vast, limiting previous empirical studies to a narrow range of phenotypes. Here we demonstrate how deep learning combined with genetic algorithms can be used to augment behavioural experiments, identifying both the best camouflage and the most conspicuous signal(s) from an arbitrarily vast array of patterns. To show the generality of our approach, we do so for both trichromatic (e.g. human) and dichromat (e.g. typical mammalian) visual systems, in two different habitats. The patterns identified were validated using human participants; those identified as the best for camouflage were significantly harder to find than a tried-and-tested military design, while those identified as most conspicuous were significantly easier than other patterns. More generally, our method, dubbed the 'Camouflage Machine', will be a useful tool for identifying the optimal phenotype in high dimensional state-spaces. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.31zcrjdjv
 
Title CamoGAN 
Description CamoGAN uses Generative Adversarial Networks to simulate an evolutionary arms race between camouflage of a synthetic prey and its predator. CamoGAN can be used to evolve progressively more effective concealment against an artificial predator. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2019 
 
Title CamoGAN 
Description CamoGAN uses Generative Adversarial Networks to simulate an evolutionary arms race between camouflage of a synthetic prey and its predator. CamoGAN can be used to evolve progressively more effective concealment against an artificial predator. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2019 
 
Description Appearance in BBC "Attenborough's Life in Colour" show 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact John Fennell and Laszlo Talas appeared in the BBC1 show titled "Attenborough's Life in Colour" where they demonstrated the vision constraints deer face when looking for a hiding tiger.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000styx
 
Description Bristol Neuroscience Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture to c.200 people as part of Bristol Neuroscience Festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/neuroscience/bnf/2016/programme/
 
Description CamoCon 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Organised CamoCon 2018 in Bristol. This is the only international camouflage conference, and attracts both academics and industrial partners (and potential partners). The latter were represented by attendees from Dstl, QinetiQ, Boots, Countershade C.I.C. and Humble Bee Films, and a number of potential collaborative projects were identified between them and CamoLab .
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://camolab.com/events.php?s=camocon-2018-slides
 
Description DSTL LISTEN Signature Management Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Meeting of industrial partners interested in collaborating to improve signal management. We were the only academic institution present.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description ECVP 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Poster presentation at ECVP 2016, prompted questions and discussion during and after the conference
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.ub.edu/ecvp/
 
Description Keynote lecture at conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited keynote lecture, Chinese Ornithological Congress, Xian, China, 22-25 September, 2015. "What camouflage tells us about avian perception and cognition"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Poster presentation at ECVP 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact European Conference of Visual Perception is annual conference attracting between 700-1000 vision scientists. In 2017, the conferences was held in Berlin, Germany and we have presented a poster titled "The Camouflage Machine Part II: Optimising both colours and textures for camouflage and visibility". Several people have attended our poster, which sparked questions and discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.ecvp.org/2017/
 
Description Poster presentation at Royal Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact "Understanding images in biological and computer vision" was a scientific discussion meeting organised by Dr Andrew Schofield, Professor Aleš Leonardis, Professor Marina Bloj, Professor Iain D Gilchrist and Dr Nicola Bellotto at Royal Society, London. We have presented a poster titled "The "Camouflage Machine": optimising patterns for camouflage and visibility", which attracted vision scientists (e.g. biologists, psychologists) for questions and discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2018/02/understanding-images/
 
Description Presentation at a military-themed workshop of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, in Washington DC. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited to speak at a workshop on Bioinspired Signature Management on 16 September 2019, run by the Board on Army Research and Development (BOARD) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, in Washington DC. My presentation remit was blue skies research on animal camouflage, with a view to possible military applications. The outcomes of the meeting are classified.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/board/index.htm
 
Description Public engagement activity - Festival of Nature 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact "Nature expert" at event at the 2017 Festival of Nature, a 2-day free public event organised by the the Bristol Natural History Consortium (http://www.bnhc.org.uk/festival-of-nature/). I took part in "Nature Roulette" talking about animal coloration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bnhc.org.uk/nature-roulette-will-meet/
 
Description School visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact STEM ambassador event: careers advice, mock interviews.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Symposium talk at Behaviour 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Behaviour 2017 was a joint meeting of the 35th International Ethological Conference (IEC) and the 2017 Summer Meeting of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB), that will bring together researchers and students from all fields of behaviour science. We have organised a symposium titled "Computational approaches to animal camouflage" and presented a talk with the title "Optimising camouflage against mammalian vision". The symposium was followed by a discussion session, where the audience engaged with speakers about the most relevant questions in animal camouflage and how to measure it using state-of-the-art computational techniques.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://behaviour2017.org/symposia/
 
Description Talk at St Brendans 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk on camouflage and illusions to local school.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at local school 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk to GCSE and lower 6th form students on animal defensive coloration, followed by presentation and discussion on careers in biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at local school 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Invited talk at Bristol Grammar School to a mixture of staff and pupils.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Talk at local school 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk to GCSE and lower 6th form students on animal camouflage, followed by presentation and discussion on careers in biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk at local school 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk to GCSE and lower 6th form students on animal camouflage, followed by presentation and discussion on careers in biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk on animal defensive coloration at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited research talk to graduate students, undergraduates and postdocs at the School of Life Sciences, University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk on camouflage and Illusions 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact STEM ambassador event: invited talk to STEM day for regional schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk on camouflage and illusions 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact STEM ambassador event: invited talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk on camouflage at RHUL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminar at Royal Holloway, University of London
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk on camouflage at UCL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminar given in Computer Science at UCL.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk on camouflage at the University of Bielefeld, Germany 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Research talk and discussion with students (postgrad and undergrad) about my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk on camouflage at the University of Durham 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Research talk and discussion with students (postgrad and undergrad) about my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk on camouflage at the University of Lausanne 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Research talk and discussion with students (postgrad and undergrad) about my research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk on careers in STEM 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact STEM ambassador event: careers in STEM.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018