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 paper folding at the Bauhaus. His work subsequently influenced other modern artists, including Japanese origami artist Kunihiko Kasahara, known for his simple paper cubes that conceal hidden complexity.

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 aesthetic of the human body (human spine dress, created by the students at Pratt Institute.)


Bioengineers now re-invent the human body’s capabilities using origami principles. 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 has created new muscles that are remarkably programmable. The scientists themselves are surprised by how sophisticated 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 metal or plastic coils, folded into a certain pattern. Around this central core is a skin that is filled with fluid or air (creating a fluid-filled plastic bag). When a vacuum is applied inside the bag, 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 impairment, substituting for paralyzed muscles, for example. Size-wise, these ‘actuators’ 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 artificial muscles have 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. They also are incredibly lightweight. Last – but not least –  a single muscle takes less than ten minutes to construct with materials cost less than $1.


The 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 when playing with large pieces of ordinary newsprint. Whether enfolding or unfolding, the paper exhibited a cloud-like lightness that inspired me beyond my usual movement vocabulary. The paper acted as a second air-filled skin with unique ways of exploring the sense of 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 folded angles.  Only when multiple folds intersected would a fragile seam give way. Click here to see the short improvisation with the sound surround, created by soundscape artist Jude Casseday. Jude’s folded soundscape created an immersive environment. You can read more about Jude’s work at her blogsite as well as Jude’s blogs and bio here on this website.  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.