Origami is a Zero art because you only use one piece of paper, and are supposed to make something pretty complicated, by just folding it.  No cutting, no gluing allowed.  From this limitation emerges boundless creativity and beauty.

It has been a Japanese traditional past-time for children for a long time. It’s not known how it originated, but it was already popular among people during the Edo era (1603-1868), as paper became commonly available.  For Japanese children, it is a “must” (or unavoidable) craft.  At some point, they will learn how to fold at least some popular Origami, such as crane, for example (Left image by Andreas Bauer Origami-Kunst (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons).  But for the most part, it’s about following the instructions, rather than inventing their own creation, because of its complexity.

This has changed drastically, says Robert L. Lang, a renowned physicist from Caltech, with a Ph.D in Applied Physics, and a world-famous Origami artist.

For hundreds of years, Origami served Japanese as an elaborate craft/art. While it was fun and beautiful, it didn’t provide much functional value. But the 20th century suddenly changed that. Global proliferation and the application of mathematical theories elevated Origami to the next level, says Dr. Lang.

The fundamental question is how to draw a series of circles (areas needed for each part of an object you’d want to create), connected to each other, on a flat plain, and allow a three dimensional shape to emerge. Mathematicians, physicists and engineers tackled this problem and pushed Origami to the point where it was ready to be applied to many products that needed a breakthrough.

Applied Origami:  Miura-ori on solar panels

A Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura invented Miura-ori (Left, A movie of folding Miura-ori by By MetaNest (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
As you can see,  the creases lie along straight lines in one direction, and each line forms the mirror reflection of its neighbor across each crease.  When applied, the material can be packed into a very compact shape, and then can be unpacked in one motion by pulling on its opposite ends.

The prime example of Miura-ori applied in modern technology is the large arrays of solar panels used for satellites. It works perfect because the arrays of solar panels can be packed compactly and then launched into  space, and then they can be unpacked easily, once in outer space. In addition,  Miura-ori can also be applied to rigid material.

Applied Origami:  Airbag

Dr. Lang worked with an airbag manufacturer who was facing a challenge.  Because of the goal it attempts to achieve, an airbag needs to be simulated thoroughly to ensure safety and protection in any perceivable situation.  Dr. Lang describes the issue:

While flattening an airbag in real life is fairly easy to do – you just squash all the air out of it — simulating the flattening process is quite a challenge. In order to flatten an airbag in simulation, you need to first treat it as a rigid object (as if it were made out of cardboard), then find creases that flatten it, then fold it up into a small packet; all before your simulation can ever start.

And that’s where Origami comes into play, he says.

It turns out that the problem of finding the creases to flatten an airbag from a 3-D polyhedron to a flat shape is not that far from finding the creases that turn a flat sheet of paper into another flat shape, and the latter is the fundamental challenge faced by all origami designers.

Actually he’d already developed several computer algorithms to help solve the problem.  The algorithm, called the “universal molecule,” turned out to be directly applicable to the airbag problem, providing the solution for how to flatten a large class of shapes in simulation.

Humans inherently have power and potential to work within limitations set by nature.  When given limitations, we observe things with an unbelievable level of concentration. By observing various shapes in nature,  Origami masters, in many different eras, eventually allowed creases to emerge on a flat paper, and replicated them, however complex they became.

Technology is great, but our brains are the ultimate source of technology. And our brains can achieve amazing feats — if we stay close to, and connected to nature.