Origami still wows

If you have never been mind-boggled by origami, follow this link to several artistic masterpieces, all made from a single piece of folded paper. If you are still not impressed, consider that this centuries-old Japanese craft has been revolutionized to produce everything from medical stents to space telescopes to airbags to easy-to-ship disaster shelters.

Recreational origami was probably already popular by the 16th century, and paper-folding for ceremonial purposes existed well before that. Prior to the 20th century, however, it was taught mainly by word of mouth, and by works that showed only the finished shapes. Akira Yoshizawa changed all that by publishing drawings that showed how to make each of the folds for hundreds of figures.

This enabled a modern boom both domestically and abroad. Most normally dexterous people could teach themselves to make a crane of sorts. Enthusiasts could entertain themselves and others with monkeys, foxes, dogs, cicadas, elephants, or gorillas.

Yoshizawa also developed new techniques, such as “wet-folding”, which gives works a more rounded finish. These raised the traditional craft to an art form, allowing more realism and subtlety of expression. Animals no longer have to look like 3D stick figures; observers can let themselves be awed not only by the skill of the producer but also by the beauty of the product.

Input from unexpected quarters was needed for origami to reach its current level of sophistication, though. One such source was geometricians who had no interest in paper-folding nor in its practical applications. Their zeal was motivated solely by the beauty of equations that could express answers to intellectual problems they posed for themselves, such as: In a given area filled with non-overlapping circles, what arrangement would allow for the greatest number of circles? Papers and conference presentations on such abstruse topics can still elicit oohs and ahhs from audiences.

Physicist Robert Lang found that the “crease patterns” (diagrams with lines where each fold is made) of all origami follow four simple rules, such as “The shapes in a crease pattern can be coloured with only two colours such that no area would be adjacent to one of the same colour” and “Alternate angles at each fold add up to 180 degrees, or a straight line”. With four such rules an algorithm can be made that a computer can use to generate a diagram for any figure, no matter how complex.

Lang’s generation of origamists incorporated findings of “circle packing” mentioned above. A figure’s appendages (legs, wings, fingers) are the result of flaps in the folding process; flaps show up as circles in the crease pattern. Suddenly, all that work on circles on a plane opens countless possibilities to folding fanatics.

So now engineers are able to design a plethora of large objects that collapse into compact ones, or portable objects that unfurl into larger ones. Like a shield for police that can stop a .45 magnum bullet. Or a reusable 750 ml water bottle that smashes down to pocket size (once emptied of its liquid, of course). Or a collapsible kayak.

Medical stents are introduced into blood (or other) vessels in collapsed form, and, once in position, open up to form a support lattice, thus preventing the vessel from being obstructed and saving the life of the patient.

A team at Brigham Young University has made a “retractor”, which pushes away organs during robot surgery. It is inserted into the body through a miniscule incision and then deployed.

Researchers have produced an origami device that can be swallowed as a capsule, but which then unfolds into a patch for a wound, or a robot that snags and removes unwanted objects such as button batteries.

Millions of dollars in fuel costs have been saved by trains that use fairings attached to the nose to make them more aerodynamic. These fairings can be folded up when cars are connected to each other.

Origamist engineers have constructed objects in which all the folds open simultaneously, making it possible for them to spring into existence and then bounce back.

To envisage a possible next generation of origami, try this thought experiment: Imagine folding a sheet of paper into a crane, then returning it to its sheet form and refolding it into a box. Next, instead of cranes and boxes, imagine you have made a wheel, which then becomes a tent. The origami creation becomes a “transformer”, to use Hollywood’s term, or a “Robogami”, to use robot expert Jamie Paik’s.

The European Space Agency and Swiss Space Center are using this concept in plans for future work in space. Given the difficulty of transporting multiple single-function robots in rockets with strict space limitations, they are conceptualizing multipurpose robots that transform as needed, for rolling, climbing, lifting, digging or sheltering.

Others are working on intelligent plates, or thin “modules” complete with sensors and motors, that can interlock with each other in different ways for complex jobs in difficult environments on Earth.

What I love most about all of this is the convergence that made it possible: Such diverse humans in distinct places pursuing games, art, math, or problem-solving, with true passion, some of them motivated by nothing more than a desire to behold a finished work and say, “Wow!”

And while engineers and businesses can speed ahead with new projects, children and hobbyists can still relax and spend their free moments making simple cranes to decorate someone’s desk.

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