Origami paper making began in the 6th century by Japanese Buddhist monks. At that time paper was a precious commodity, so origami was reserved mainly for ritual ceremonies. By the 19th century, origami spread to the west.  Friedrich Fröbel, the founder of the kindergartens, recognized the importance of origami in developing children’s minds. In the 1920’s artist Josef Albers (father of color theory and minimalism in art) taught origami and other forms of paper folding at the Bauhaus. His work subsequently influenced other modern artists, including Japanese origami artist Kunihiko Kasahara, known for his paper creations on the cube, variations which played with the hidden complexity in simplicity.

Today, origami continues to influence artists and scientists around the world, inspiring new applications. Although the human body can’t fold in the same manner as a piece of paper, for example, flat folds find their way into fashion, extending the concept of the human body (human spine dresses, e.g.)

 

Robotics and bioengineering now draw from origami principles which re-invent and extend the human body’s capabilities. Take a look at the recent work of the scientists at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS ).  Scientists in the robotics lab are designing origami-inspired artificial muscles, a feat that is changing the anatomical paradigm of muscle properties. Working with a range of artificial materials like plastic, the team is creating new muscles that are remarkably programmable. The scientists themselves are surprised by how highly adaptable these muscles are in terms of terms of force production, pliability and other properties.

 

To simplify their design, the origami muscle is made of an inner skeleton made from various metal coils or plastics, folded into a certain pattern. Around this central core is a skin that is filled with (essentially a fluid-filled plastic bag. A vacuum is applied inside the bag which causes the skin to collapse onto the skeleton. This creates the tension that drives the motion of contraction. Incredibly, the muscle requires no other power source or human impulse to create movement. The folded shape and the composition of the skeleton determines the ability to move. Further, the scientists find that the vacuum muscle pump (so to speak) renders the muscles safer because they are less likely to rupture or become damaged.

 

The new muscles show incredible promise for extending the capability of the human body, filling in for when there is paralysis or other problems that impair muscle action. Size-wise, they can be small (a few millimeters) or quite large (exceeding one meter). Their applications extend from small surgical devices to wearable robotic exoskeletons, and even to large deployable structures for deep sea and space exploration.

These new ‘actuators,’ as they are called have taken on extraordinary powers. Origami-inspired artificial muscles are super strong – capable of lifting up to 1,000 times their own weight, simply by applying air or water pressure.

 

Further, the muscles are incredibly resilient. To quote the team ‘[The muscles] can generate about six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle can, and are also incredibly lightweight; a 2.6-gram muscle can lift a 3-kilogram object, which is the equivalent of a mallard duck lifting a car.  Last – but not least –  a single muscle takes less than ten minutes to construct with materials cost less than $1.

These amazing properties of artificial muscles made me recall my own explorations in movement improvisation. I found that partnering with paper seemed to replicate some of the properties described by these scientists. I discovered many paradoxical properties embedded in playing with large pieces of newsprint and other paper textures. Regardless of enfolding or unfolding, the paper exhibited a cloud-like lightness that called me beyond my usual movement vocabulary. The paper acted as a second air-filled skin with unique ways of exploiting weight. Whether suspended in the air or landing lightly on my body or the floor, the paper seemed to ride on invisible air currents created by our mutual duet. At the same time, the paper seemed resistant to ripping or shredding, regardless of the angle until multiple folds would intersect into a fragile seam. The sound, created by soundscape artist Jude Casseday, also supported the immersive folding environment. Origami, an ever-rich source of learning about about weight, force, space, and vibration!

This research cited was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.