Computational Origami

Origami is art. It is birds and animals and flowers. It is decoration for your dinner table or a basket to carry your picnic. It's a paper hat or boat to bring a smile to a small child. It's a container for storing your odds and ends. It's a clever presentation for a gift. Origami is mathematics. It is a puzzle, a challenge and an aid to teaching. Origami is therapy, its relaxation; it increases dexterity and develops patience. Origami is a lot of things. Now there is Computational Origami, an inspiration and a problem solver for commercial and industrial products.

Robert Lang is a physicist and origamist in California. He understood that some engineering problems resulted from the need to fold a large piece of material, without cutting it, and make it fit a flat surface, which is what origami is all about. One day Lang was approached by a German engineering company that had a problem and was hoping he had a solution. They had a very large airbag that needed to be fit into a small compartment in the steering wheel. Lang already had procedures designed for a computer to follow to flatten a set of polygons. He then applied those procedures to a three dimensional simulation of a large airbag resulting in a way to fold the airbag so that it would fit into the space allotted.

A professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Erik Demaine, is hoping that using computational origami to examine the way proteins fold will lead to a method of designing custom proteins that will fight diseases like Cystic Fibrosis. Although computational origami could be an effective tool in finding the how's and why's of proteins structures and their sequences, unfortunately, the computers available at this time don't have the speed and capacity that will be required to compare and map all the possibilities.

Cell phones keep getting smaller. More and more options are being added to cell phones. The cell phone is no longer just an instrument used to call for a tow truck. You can still make phone calls but you can also text message, take still photos, take video photos, listen to your favorite music or watch your favorite movie. One of the problems the manufacturer faced was that the consumer liked the small size of the phones but didn't want to have to watch a movie on a two-inch screen. Enter computational origami and the development of a small cell phone, which has a screen that unfolds when the phone is opened and folds back up when the case is closed. The same technology is being applied to a portable DVD player. Another product that uses the origami basics is a small portable unit about the size of a camcorder that can be folded and pivoted in different ways to perform eight electronic functions including digital camera, PDA or a videoconference terminal.

All kinds of containers and shipping boxes are cut from a single piece of cardboard, shipped flat and folded into shape when needed. One company even makes chairs that are self-contained. The packaging is part of the chair. When it arrives, you unfold the packaging, which forms the frame of the chair, remove the cushions and covers that were packed inside and you have a chair with no extra packing that has to be disposed of.