Episode 5: Unfolding the future of origami

Origami isn’t just child’s play. The math and science behind paper folding can revolutionize how we make all kinds of technologies.

Roboticist Shuguang Li used origami to develop soft, strong, and lightweight robotic arms. Each arm has an inner skeleton inspired by origami folds and uses vacuum pressure to act like an artificial muscle.
Photograph by Craig Cutler

The future is bright for origami, the centuries-old art of paper folding. In recent decades, scientists, engineers, and designers have pushed origami beyond its traditional roots and applied its patterns to fascinating technologies like foldable kayaks and tiny robots that can fit into a pill capsule. We’ll fold cranes with National Geographic writer Maya Wei-Haas, who will share the latest advancements with origami and what the future holds for this art form in science. 

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(Laboratory sounds)

MARC MISKIN (ENGINEER): You need sleeves, just in case there’s chemical spills. 

MAYA WEI-HAAS (WRITER): Gotcha. Yeah, that makes sense. 

MISKIN: It’s nothing too weird. 

ELI CHEN (HOST) : The voices that you’re hearing are National Geographic writer Maya Wei-Haas and Marc Miskin, who’s an electrical engineer. Maya’s preparing to enter Marc’s laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, and it’s a pretty involved process

WEI-HAAS: So you walk into that building, and you’re presented with this glass wall, this orange glass wall. And behind that is their clean room that he uses to make these in. Their models are the width essentially of a human hair or smaller, perhaps. And so like, if you get hair in it, if you get dust on it, it’s gonna destroy what you’re working on. So it has to be extremely clean. 

CHEN: They have to be really careful because Marc is making something delicate and extraordinary.

WEI-HAAS: He does these really fascinating, like, nano-sized robots. They’re tiny. You can have them walking around, or like they have a video on their website of one of them waving at an amoeba, which is hilarious.

CHEN: Wow. That’s amazing. 


LABORATORY RESEARCHER: You just missed a scientific discovery. This robot is actually just in straight water, which is really exciting. And it’s straight, it can move around, it’s going pretty quickly.

CHEN: And what’s powering these cutting-edge robots is actually something very old: origami. Origami artists have been perfecting bending techniques for hundreds of years. And that’s what allows these nanobots to move. 

WEI-HAAS: They can make them bend, and it’s those bends that are like the little legs. 

And it’s really cool. I mean, these are the kinds of things that are sort of this like, it feels like you’re almost in the future, when—I’m thinking of talking to him about these and like he showed me some of them under a slide of these little, the ones that I saw were propelled by light. And they’re just like zipping across with the glass slide. And it’s just, you know, there’s a lot of possibility for what these could do. 

CHEN: I’m Eli Chen, senior editor of audio at National Geographic, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. Origami is way more than kids folding paper cranes. 

This week we’ll get into how scientists and engineers are pushing this centuries-old art to new frontiers. And we’ll hear why origami is showing up in all kinds of unexpected places, including kayaks and tiny robots that you could someday swallow like a pill. 

Fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

WEI-HAAS: So this little point here is gonna be the body of your crane.

CHEN: Oh, OK. Got it. 

Before we jump into laboratories and foldable nanobots, I want to start at square one. 

Origami to me is a nostalgic activity. My mom, who’s Taiwanese, was the one who taught me how to fold paper. And when I was a kid, I used to fold little stars, hats, and those frogs that jump when you press on their butts. 

So Maya and I sat down to fold cranes together, along with senior producer Jacob Pinter. 

JACOB PINTER (PRODUCER): It kind of looks like a kite with extra wings.

CHEN: Just like waiting for this to turn into a bird.

WEI-HAAS: It’ll happen, it’ll happen, I promise. 

CHEN: I remember having a hard time folding cranes when I was a kid, and I don’t think I ever finished one without help. But Maya here is a real pro.  

WEI-HAAS: After I made a thousand for my wedding—

PINTER: Literally a thousand?

WEI-HAAS: It was a thousand. We did count. We kept track of them. It was crazy. I was folding—at some point, I started being able to fold them without looking at it because it’s a repetitive motion over and over again. And it was any other—a thousand is a lot more than I think I thought initially. I don’t know what I thought that was gonna be. But it was like, I was folding right up until the day before and like my husband was—we got married down in Florida near where my granddad lives, and so he was driving us into the night and it was pitch black and I was just sitting there just like folding cranes and at some point, he looks over at me and he’s like, “Are you folding in the dark?” I was like, “Yeah, we have to fold these!” But it’s just kind of, it’s very meditative. 

And now, you just take the wings—


WEI-HAAS: And you can kind of gently pull it open. (tearing sound) Oops. I tore it. I like how I was like, gentle. But yeah, anyway. The idea being that you can make his body expand a little bit by pulling the wings open.

PINTER: That’s a real crane.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah. That is a real crane.

PINTER: Maya, I think you would be a really good origami Bob Ross. Like, just make, you know these happy little mistakes. Some happy little cranes. We’re gonna fold it. We’re gonna have fun.

WEI-HAAS: Have fun along the way.

PINTER: No tears.

CHEN: For most of us, this as far as origami goes. Maybe you buy an instructional book, fold along the dotted lines, and call it a day. But let’s rewind a little bit, back to the origins of origami. When there was no mass-produced origami books and way before scientists were experimenting with folding nanobots. 

WEI-HAAS: No one really knows exactly how or where the paper folding started. Origami is—that is kind of the Japanese version of the tradition. But paper folding as a whole, there’s sort of a little bit of uncertainty exactly how far back it goes in history and when it actually started. Written records start to become scarce when there’s not a lot of paper around.

CHEN: Right, right. Of course.

WEI-HAAS: I believe paper making started in China and was brought over to Japan. It took a little bit of time for folding to really become more of an art form because at first, the paper was brittle. It was very expensive. And so they did some folding, but it was for ceremonial purposes and things like that. And it took a while for paper production to improve and that sort of thing, for folding to become more mainstream in Japan.

CHEN: Right, because in your piece you had written about how paper was sort of a scarce resource, right? Like, hundreds of years ago.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah. When they first started making paper, I mean, you can imagine how much work goes into it. It ends up being very expensive. And so it’s not something that you’re gonna like us just sitting down and, you know, grabbing a few cranes and yeah, it’s fun. But back then it was actually something that took a really long time to make. And so you’re going to value what you make from that paper so much more, I think.

CHEN: Sure, sure. So as paper production improved, you know, what point did this start to become an art form?

WEI-HAAS: Yeah. So Akira Yoshizawa came in—he’s often called the grand master of origami. Like, he is a really large figure in the world of paper folding. And he was really the one who elevated it to kind of what it’s seen as like an art form.

His folding is amazingly intricate and all of his animals and the faces and masks, things that he makes all seem to have like expressions and emotions. It’s really amazing. And what he actually did was this form of, kind of wet folding is what they call—you dampen the paper so that he can create these intricate details. And it creates beautiful, beautiful sculptures. 

The other thing that he did, though, is when he started publishing books, he used this series of kind of dashed arrows, lines, things like that, to explain what he was doing step by step. And there were other people that were using some sort of language and symbolism at the time, but Yoshizawa’s system was so easily understandable for everybody around the world that it really caught fire and actually is the basis for what you still see in origami books that are published today. And it’s kind of the language of origami, and that allowed other people to use his designs and build on them and learn. And before that, it was actually quite hard. If you think about trying to teach something without really a language to transmit it, it is quite difficult.

CHEN: So for this piece, you had interviewed a woman named Tomoko Fuse, who was really heavily influenced by Yoshizawa. So could you tell me a little bit about her and what she created?

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, so Tomoko Fuse right now is one of Japan’s foremost origami artists. She was hospitalized with diptheria when she was just a child. And she told me about learning in the hospital. Like there were these white paper wrappers around all the medicines, and apparently people folded them into origami and she was kind of interested in it. And when she got out of the hospital, her father gave her Yoshizawa’s second origami book. And she was just entranced.She loved it. And she was recovering from diptheria for about a year, and so she couldn’t really go to school or see people very much. And so she just folded. She went page by page and folded everything in the book. And she, since then, has continued on and that was in the 1950s.

And she is now one of foremost origami artists in Japan. And she does these beautiful, like, installation sculptures. They’re massive. Some of them are, like, room scale. And so one of the things that she’s known for is her modular origami, which uses kind of a bunch of these interlocking units that create kind of more flexibility and diversity in what she’s creating.

But I just found it really interesting to talk with her because the way that she talks about origami is less about creating something necessarily and more about discovering something, which I think is a really neat way to think about it. And she said that she’s kind of like a treasure hunter.Like she’s following what the paper wants to do. Sure she knows some of the patterns and things like that that she can fold. And she said she has an idea in her head of where she wants to go, but she also is listening to what the paper wants to do. And you know, sometimes just beautiful things emerge from working with it and knowing what you’re doing. And I just thought it was really cool.

CHEN: Yeah, can you describe something that she’s made, one of those large, room scale installations that she’s built?

WEI-HAAS: Right, so modular origami actually can be something kind of big and amorphous, but it also—the example that she showed me when I was asking her to explain what that actually means was a box. And she took the box apart as I was watching. She took one side off and I was like, Oh, OK. So there’s kind of these triangular sides, and she pulled one side out and then another side out, and the box was actually constructed by three units that looked all very similar—I think they may have actually been identical—and they fit together to create this box as a whole. And so it’s repeating units basically that you can then interlock. A lot of origami is just made out of one sheet. But she really figured out how to create some really interesting things by creating these individual little units that you put together.

CHEN: Coming up, how scientists are bringing this art form into the laboratory. 

(To Wei-Haas) And so, you know, as the art has evolved over the century, there’s also been a number of scientists and mathematicians who’ve taken an interest in origami. So I’m wondering if you could explain why that is.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, so that was really the root of the story that I have been reporting about. As I was reporting this story, I talked to a lot of scientists about why origami—why does origami seem applicable to so many different fields?

Because it really has seemed to work itself into very diverse uses throughout the world of science and engineering, mathematics, architecture even. It’s a tough question to answer. There’s a researcher, Thomas Hull, who’s a mathematician at Western New England University, and he said to me, it’s interesting because a lot of the time they’re sort of trends that come and go in the science world as much as there is, you know, like fashion.

You have these trends that come about. Everybody’s really excited, and then it sort of dies out. And what’s interesting about origami is that it hasn’t yet died out. It’s been around for quite some time in the science world. Partly, it’s because I think origami is like a tool set. It’s not a specific field of its own. 

CHEN: Right. 

WEI-HAAS: It’s a tool set that opens up new possibilities for people in a bunch of different fields. It’s not just paper. It can, you know, you can do origami with all kinds of different things. We’ve done it with solar panels for the satellite. They’ve done it in metal or plastic or any material. So there’s sort of a flexibility to this. Anything you wanna take from a 2D form to a 3D form is, it’s really great for that.

I mean, how do you do that in a very quick way? You can do it through origami. Yeah. And then the last thing about it is scale, really. 

CHEN: Right. 

WEI-HAAS: The folding theoretically works the same way at any scale. Eventually you’re gonna come into like, material problems, but really, you know, starting something tiny, tiny to something ginormous, you can make a crane that’s like, you know, small enough to sit on your finger. And then also one that can fill this room, so.

CHEN: Origami can be used for all kinds of technology. Maya told me about a project in the works to one day use origami for medical purposes.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, so it’s a different project by a group at MIT. One of the leaders of that project is Daniela Rus. And she and her team created these tiny little bots that can fold into a pill capsule. They’re actually much bigger—they’re small, but they’re much bigger than the ones at Marc Miskin’s lab. And so these can fold into either a pill capsule, or she said they can be frozen into ice—like an ice pill—and then they’re ingested and can go through the body into the stomach. And the idea is that they could be used for things like maybe patching a wound or delivering medicine to a specific part of your body or one of their first tests was actually to remove a button battery. 

CHEN: Wow.

WEI-HAAS: Apparently lots of young kids swallow these little button batteries. Like the ones you put in—

CHEN: Oh, like in a watch or something?

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. They were testing to see whether these bots could actually help remove it, and they found that if you can get it into the body and then use kind of magnetic fields to direct that little bot to wherever the button battery is and have it pull it out and safely exit the body that way. And so it’s just really interesting. It’s just one example of what could be done. And so she was saying, you know, imagine this kind of a future without surgery, without needing to cut people open. You can actually do a lot of these things that are slightly more simple with some of these robots.

CHEN: Yeah. I’m wondering, you know, with technology like that, it sounds really amazing because it’s sort of like a noninvasive way to treat something—treat like, you know, a wound or treat whatever. I’m wondering, where is it in terms of getting out into the real world?

WEI-HAAS: We’re still a little ways away from actually seeing this in the real world or in application. I mean, all of these projects are still in development right now, or they’re in kind of the research phase. 

CHEN: Yeah. 

WEI-HAAS: But I think that it does offer a lot of promise and possibility to do things that I think a lot of people maybe didn’t think were possible, even.So like Marc Miskin’s robots, those nanobots? Part of the problem with creating robots that tiny is that when you get that small, all of the forces like friction become really large. And so things like gears or stuff like that don’t work when you’re that tiny. So we can’t actually make robots the traditional way that small.

And so origami there actually really, truly solves a problem for them because, how else are they gonna make these things move? They can’t make them have limbs that move unless there’s some other way other than what we know is like gears and hinges and stuff like that. So bends and folds become their answer to that.

CHEN: Yeah. I mean, we just experienced that now with the cranes. You can, like, fold things into very small scales.

WEI-HAAS: Mm-hmm, yeah. And the other neat thing that the cranes show is that it actually takes it into three dimensions. So, you know, you have—you started with a flat piece of paper and now we have like, the body here is actually filled with air and it is kind of this larger kind of pocket. But it’s easier to manufacture in 2D. So if there’s a way that you can get something to fold itself or you know, fairly simply fold into three dimensions, then you know, it makes manufacturing potentially more simple.

CHEN: So, you know, earlier you were talking about the mathematician Thomas Hull and how there are trends that come and go in science. So in the case of origami, it seemed like it was met with some resistance in the beginning in the science world, but has the science world embraced origami? Is it here to stay?

WEI-HAAS: It seems like it is. Yeah. The resistance has definitely died back a large amount. Thomas Hull has been part of the transition of origami into science for a long time. And he’s long been interested in the mathematics behind it. And so when he first started, he told me this story about, he called up one of the program officers at the National Science Foundation who funds a lot of this research, and he was telling them about this idea he had for a project.

And, you know, they cut him off at some point, he said. And [they] said, you know, we’re never gonna fund something with origami in the title. There was a lot of pushback to this being seen as something that was serious science. In part, I think particularly in Japan—the Japanese scientists I spoke to about this had said —partly because it is seen kind of as a child’s toy or a child’s plaything. All children learn this in Japan when they’re very young. And so it’s seen as kind of a children’s activity. And so to actually then say you’re gonna study it—there’s just kind of a dissonance there that I think has slowly been broken down.

CHEN: There is a lot of mystery though, behind how all these folds work, right? So it is worth investigating from a mathematical standpoint, I think, as you’d written.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, for sure. In order to truly understand how the folds work and some of these mechanics behind these folds, you have to be able to put math and numbers to them. And so this is what researchers have done for a very long time now and are continuing to do because we don’t fully understand how all of the folds or the mechanisms work. And so in order to actually use them properly, we have to get that math correct. 

CHEN: Right. So you know, as artists and engineers continue to sort of master the craft and make new things, what do you think is next in terms of origami innovation?

WEI-HAAS: I mean a lot of what I saw already feels like we’re in the future, honestly. Like the nanobot technology, it blows my mind. But I think actually seeing more of these products in the mainstream, like actually seeing some of the origami medical devices go to testing and go into use, like, it’s gonna take a while for these things actually to be practically used. But I’m excited for when we actually start to get to see more of these things. And already we are seeing some origami in product design.

CHEN: Yeah, tell us about the kayak.

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, the kayak. So it’s from the company, Oru Kayak, and it folds down into basically like, it’s a little bit of an oversized suitcase size, but it’s fairly light. And it’s made of what you think of as, you know, like the signs that you put into your yard. It’s a nicer version of that kind of plastic, but it’s like a corrugated plastic, essentially. And it folds very nicely into this little case. And then you just do two straps and you can carry it around. It fits into your car fairly easily. I took it for a spin on the lake near my house. And you can just pull it out and in a few minutes you have a boat after you unfold it. It’s pretty cool. It’s a neat idea.

CHEN: Yeah. That’s the kayak of the future. It’s folded and it’s easy to carry around, right?

WEI-HAAS: Yeah, definitely. The creator, Anton Willis, came up with this idea because he had moved to San Francisco and had a really small apartment and he couldn’t fit his kayak and there just wasn’t room for it. And so he started just folding these like paper models at his desk. Sometimes at work, he said, when he didn’t have anything else to do, he’d just kind of mess around with the model and eventually became these prototypes and now is a whole company with a whole line of like different boats for different uses and things like that.

But yeah, it’s a neat idea, and Daniela Rus talks about this some too. And so, you know, one of their early products she had worked on, she had said, imagine that you just have a piece of paper and you could just program it to say, I need a cup right now.And it folds into a cup. And there you have a cup and you’re like, oh, well you know, I don’t need that anymore. I need a stand for my phone. And it then folds into stand for your phone because all of these things would only require a little bit of reorientation of the paper. And so she was like, it would be really cool to have a flexible, you know, product that could become a bunch of different things.

And origami could actually do that because we have a piece of paper that can become a crane. It can become a hopping frog or a bird or a whatever. We are still little ways away from that happening, but I think there’s just, there is a lot of possibility there.

CHEN: If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe. 

If Maya’s tales of origami science piqued your curiosity, read her article in the February issue of National Geographic magazine. There’s way more detail about how designers are planning to use origami, including in space, plus some awesome photos. 

Another place you might see origami? On your face. There’s always room to improve the masks we wear to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Maya has another story about a designer who is using origami to make a mask that fits your face more snugly and has a bigger surface area to make breathing more comfortable. You can see the full story, also with photos, in our show notes. 

And origami is also headed to the bottom of the ocean. Origami folds could be the key to perfecting a super delicate robot that can catch deep-sea animals, study them, and release them unharmed. 

That’s all in your show notes, right there in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Ilana Strauss.

Our producers include Khari Douglas.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter, who edited this episode.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Robin Palmer fact checked this episode. 

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host and senior editor, Eli Chen. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.


Want more?

We’ve just touched the surface of origami science. To go deeper, read Maya’s story in the February issue of National Geographic magazine. She talks about more applications of origami, including origami in space. 

Did you know that origami could be the key to making better face masks? Origami’s unique folds may be able to make face masks fit better. Check out our article exploring this possibility. 

Also explore

Plus, grab some origami and head to the ocean. Origami folds could be the key to perfecting a super delicate robot that can catch deep-sea animals, study them, and release them unharmed.