Commercial origami starts to take shape


Wired on Friday: For Robert Lang, origami came first: a wondrous thing he could do with paper from the age of six. Though he pursued physics and went on to develop lasers for a living, he always preferred bends in paper to beams of light. Four years ago he took a chance, and went from professional laser physicist to world famous origami artist and mathematician.

Lang's first origami consulting call came from Livermore Labs, a government aerospace lab in California. They had read one of Lang's papers and wanted him to help fold up a mirror for a space-based telescope - a smaller occupied space would make the trip into orbit that much cheaper. Since then, industrial origami has really started to take shape.

Combine the ancient art with the modern computer, it seems, and you find transformations that fit dozens of markets from camping gear to treating cardiovascular disease. And Lang is just one person making money out of the ancient pastime.

Origami, the Japanese art of paperfolding, is one of the most delicate and ephemeral of arts. Good origami modelling requires patience and discipline. Originally a children's craft, it hardly seems a likely place for fascinating new math, sciences and innovative industrial design. But the new field of computational origami is bringing all that in short time.

Rarely has a new area of mathematics yielded up so many interesting and useful results in its first two decades.

Origami the art experienced something of a renaissance in the 20th century, starting off with a few hundred figures (the recipes for creating a particular origami) and ending with more than 20,000 new creations. Clubs and enthusiast groups sprang up all over the world.

Without a doubt, it was a man named Akira Yoshizawa that set origami on its current path. He created thousands of new figures, but more importantly, he created a visual language to describe how to fold a figure of origami without anyone to give instructions.

With origami now a written art, in stepped the network effect - books and eventually websites sprang up with new figures and instructions on how to fold them. Yoshizawa didn't introduce the mathematics, but he introduced enough people to his art that eventually mathematicians were going to notice. By the early 1990s, computational geometry and the personal computer revolution gave birth to the discipline of computational origami. Mathematicians interested in origami and origamiists interested in math began to describe, in computer algorithms and mathematical formulae, how to fold increasingly complex shapes out of a single sheet of paper; how any piece of paper could be folded; and the range of figures that is mathematically possible.

Lang created an application called "Treemaker" that could take in a stick figure (of, say, an animal) and give to the crease pattern of the paper that could yield an origami animal figure based on that stick drawing. All you had to do was fold it.

Computational origami, while elegant, flew under the radar of most academics through most of the 1990s. It took a wunderkind, Erik Demaine, to bring legitimacy to the field.

Demaine received his Bachelor's degree when he was only 14, completed his PhD in origami as a teenage postgraduate, and joined the faculty of MIT in 2001, at the mind-boggling age of 20. At MIT he taught origami, something no other professor had done. Within two years, he'd won the Macarthur Genius Grant - $500,000 (€406,000) over five years to pursue research in the mathematics of origami.

Academia took note. And then the commercial world took note of the academics. Lang explains: "computational origami uses mathematical technique to create origami folded structures, applied either to art or as a tool in industrial design... it's a mathematical technique to create folded structure to meet a technological need."

Since then, folk like Lang have taken origami and used it to create solar sails and airbags that unfold correctly, mastered the art of unfolding tiny tubes within an artery to open and unclog them, and medical devices still in the FDA approval process in the US.

Oddly, many of these current applications are the very opposite of traditional origami. They focus on taking existing devices and folding them into a mundane form for transport and storage. Traditional origami revolves around taking an uninteresting flat material and folding it into something useful and extraordinary.

Lang thinks this is the future of commercial origami: "In the next year or two we'll see some interesting applications of folded structures... concepts for low-cost shelters, or camping tents," he says.

And the next step is a generalised construction approach based on the paper-folding science. Another quiet company called Industrial Origami uses a specially developed technique to bend steel, while retaining its strength. Applications include server chassis, jackstands, electrical junction boxes and more, all folded out of just a few pieces of sheet metal and in some cases at less than a third of the cost.

Once that step has been taken, origami will really step into the limelight. Those thousands of designs, developed across the internet, generalised by computer software, and intuitively understood by their enthusiastic creators, will become the industrial artifacts we live around and perhaps even work within.

Put like that, the variety of applications for computational origami doesn't seem so strange. After all, they had it worked out on paper all along.