Solving the universal origami puzzle

MIT/Christine Daniloff

If there is anything that you ever wanted to render as paper — your cat Luna, your first car, just some weird polyhedron — here is your chance. After 17 years of trying, MIT's Erik Demaine has co-written an algorithm that unlocks the secret of how to fold a piece of ordinary paper into any shape at all, using the minimum number of seams.

Why it matters: Origami has practical design applications, from fashioning molecules in drugs, collapsible solar-arrays in space, and miniature robots.

Demaine made his first stab at the origami problem in a 1999 paper. But it only worked if you were folding a long, skinny sheet of paper. If not, you wasted almost the whole sheet. "Their paper is indeed a significant advance," Joseph O'Rourke, a Smith College professor, tells Axios. "What was known before was either 'cheating' — winding the polyhedron with a thin strip — or not guaranteed to succeed."

Origami has engineering applications: But that isn't what attracted Demaine. "When Erik first got interested in origami, it was more an 'idle' mathematical pursuit," O'Rourke says. "I would say Erik (and others working in this area) are still more interested in the mathematics than the applications."

Then he and his research partner, Tomohiro Tachi of the University of Tokyo, found an entirely different way of going after the problem. O'Rourke credits Tachi for his practical side, "which makes him a good coauthor with Erik. :-j." They will announce their breakthrough officially next month in Brisbane at the annual Symposium on Computational Geometry.