New Technology Lets Objects Camouflage Themselves In Plain Sight

What if you never had to stare down a leaky, rotting air conditioning unit again? A team from MIT says there’s computer-generated camouflage for that.

Public spaces can get cluttered. There are bodies and buildings, yes, but also all sorts of other minutiae to support modern life. Like satellite dishes. Or utility boxes. And, when necessary, Porta Potties.


These don’t have to be boring and ugly, but they usually are. What if, on the other hand, we could disguise them? Inspired by deft, magnificent animal camouflaging techniques, one group of MIT researchers has designed an algorithm to determine how best to hide necessary eyesores in plain sight.

Andrew Owens, a PhD student in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), says he was first inspired by animals like the octopus, which can transition its skin tone and texture in order to resemble a spiky bit of coral in a matter of seconds. But when humans try to camouflage objects, there’s often the problem of perspective: From one angle a utility box posing as a bit of tall grass might work, but from another it would still look like a utility box.

Algorithms can help accommodate more than one angle. The program that Owens and four other researchers built takes into account multiple perspectives. Now, after testing the algorithm in virtual worlds, as well as on a bookshelf, they’re hoping it can be used to print out patterns and cover almost anything.

“Given how someone is walking through a public space, you might be able to study the patterns of the way pedestrians are walking, and from that figure out the best way to color the architecture or utility boxes so it’s more pleasing,” Owens says. “We ultimately see this as an architectural tool. We want to improve the scenery, and make places more enjoyable to be in.”

Artist Joshua Callaghan has been camouflaging utility boxes all over the world with a similar, but less algorithmic approach. Yet, perhaps one day, the MIT algorithm could be applied to much bigger structures. Cell phone towers, for example. Wind turbines. Or all the chemical processing centers and truck depots along the New Jersey Turnpike.

That said, one must choose camouflage opportunities carefully. “Sometimes, when you have to go the bathroom you might not want it to be camouflaged,” Owens says. “I’m not sure where to draw the line there. There might be some angry people looking for Porta Potties.”


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.