Sunday, September 26, 2010

Robert Langs Origami as Art & Science

The perception of Origami held by most is that of an obscure Japanese folk art. Challenging this perception is the work of Robert Lang who's detailed and highly complex folds are in keep with Origami's recent transformation from art to science.

The 1980s marked a turning point for Origami as it increasingly became the subject of mathematicians, scientists and engineers. The next decade welcomed a flood of ideas, theories and genuine breakthroughs exposing a truth and power in Origami marking it's renascence and future direction.

Scorpion HP, opus 541 | One uncut square of Korean hanji paper | Copyright Robert Lang

Closely tracking developments and making a few of his own, Robert Lang has become synonymous with Origami and a key figure in it's progression as an art and science. Corresponding with advances in Origami's understanding and design, robert's work continues to evolve to higher realms of possibilities.

Of his more than 500 unique designs, the insects & arthropods are particularly fascinating and perhaps his most well known. But not one to pigeon hole himself, Robert's creations come in many forms most of which could be categorised as birds, mammals, plants & flowers, sea life & mollusks, human figures, reptiles & amphibians, dinosaurs & mythical, objects, geometrics & tessellations and currency.

Rattlesnake, opus 539 | One uncut rectangle of Thai unryu paper | Copyright Robert Lang
Since turning full time artist and consultant in 2001, Robert has spent a great deal of time on his artistic commissions. These works have included commercials for Toyota Avalon, Mitsubishi Endeavor and McDonald's "After Party" commercial. He was also commissioned to produce a set of unique figures to be bronzed for permanent display on the streets of San Monica.

Robert has also worked to incorporate Origami techniques into leading technologies and innovations, the most significant of which is no doubt the Eyeglass prototype. Pictured bellow, the prototype, which Robert is standing next to, is much smaller than the planned version that will be lobbed to the outer reaches of the Earth. Getting a large telescope to space is now easy task, but the techniques and methods developed by Robert and many others over the years is helping figure out how to fold the telescope into a more manageable object for transportation to space where it will be unfolded once arriving at its destination.



Such is the interest in his work, Robert is regularly called upon to lecture and present workshops covering the artistic and scientific aspects of origami. He has authored or co-authored nine books, presented several refereed technical papers on origami-math and has stared as invited guest at international origami conventions around the world.

How a single peice of paper can be folded to form such recogniseable three dimensional characters is almost beyond belief. Indeed, Robert even describes the process of starting with a square of Origami paper and folding to produce a base which eventually forms a completed figure as "miraculous". But origami has an approach to it, much like any other engineering discipline or indeed complex system that can be most simply said that it is a step by step processes.

Robert in front of the Eyeglass prototype | Copyright Rod Hyde, LLNL
This step by step process involves a mixed bag of geometric operations and a formulae for performing one after another. The former is the mathematical descriptions of the folds. The later is known as it's computation and involves the methods or algorithms for designing Origami figures. Both disciplines have and continue to have an enormous impact on Origami leading to more complex and detail artistry whilst simultaneously becoming the new art of engineering.

Helping Robert and no doubt many others with the unthinkable accuracy needed in construction of today's most complex Origami figures are two pieces of software that Robert wrote: ReferenceFinder and TreeMaker. Coupling the past two decades of advances in mathematics and design paradigms with modern technology, Robert has allowed himself and other artists to achieve never before seen levels of complexity and detail that would not have been possible otherwise.

K2, opus 391 | 60 uncut rectangles of Wyndstone 'Marble' paper | Copyright Robert Lang
ReferenceFinder was born out of a problem that had plagued Origamists since the development of technical folding: How to accurately fold a point or line by using nothing but the paper and your hands. This had not traditionally be a problem as Origami had been an intuitive art of exploration and discovery. In contrast, technical folding was primarily concerned with the accuracy of folds, efficiency of paper use aiding the creation of even more elaborate and complicated designs.

If you didn't care about accuracy estimating the fold through the target point could be adequate. But any slight error in a fold is compounded when subsequent folds rely on it as a reference point. Thus to the technical folder, each fold had to be accurate within a certain degree.

Having previously dabbled in simulating Origami on a computer in the 80s, Robert started writing a brute force software program that would search for the shortest and most accurate folding sequences that would lead to the target fold. In 2003 the third version was released which featured the entire set of Huzita-Justin axioms. Taking a description of a point or line on a square Referencefinder will return the 5 most suitable sequence of folds that provide a final reference point/line that allow for a good target fold. The sequences suggested by ReferenceFinder may range from that of the shortest sequences to that which provide the most accuracy. By using ReferenceFinder, Origamists have been able to acheive more accurate folds using less reference points than they would have otherwise.

Bull Moose, opus 413 | One uncut square of Paper Circle abaca/cotton paper | Copyright Robert Lang
Around the same time that Robert started on ReferenceFinder, the computational aspects of Origami, that is it's algorithms or methods of design, were receiving renewed attention. One highly commended method was the collective geometric concepts known as Circle River Packing, so called because a crease pattern design with the technique was packed with circles in-between which ran river like crease patterns.

Having contributed heavily to it's development, Robert began work on new software that would eventually design a crease pattern for an Origami base to the users desired proportions. Starting as a simple mathematical curiosity in order to explore Origami's design techniques, TreeMaker eventually evolved into a capable machine for generating crease patterns that not even Robert could have created with out it.

A Miura-ken Beauty Rose, opus 482 | One uncut square of Korean hanji (bloom), wire, additional squares for calyx and leaves | Copyright Robert Lang
Since then Robert and many others have gone on to use the massive advances in Origami coupled with Robert's powerful software applications to create the most intricate and fine Origami figures ever created. Origami’s renascence has firmly arrived.

Robert has made outstanding contributions to the mathematics and computation of Origami whilst simultaneously expanding his intricate and outstanding list of artistic achievements. I can't help but draw comparisons to Leonardo De Vinci who was one of the greatest artists and scientists of the Renascence period of human culture.

The Renascence period is said to be a time in human history where art and science were often practices in unison. A cultural revolution that helped inspire some of humanities most treasured art that corresponded with education reform and significant changes in the sciences which gave way to the modern scientific method.




In a similar fashion, Origami's evolution over the last 20 years have seen it morph into an area of ongoing research and a tool for the engineer. Origami is now shedding it's former perception and becoming the 21st centuries new entertainer and innovator in the Renascence periods classic mix of art and science.

So if the years from 1980 to 2000 could be considered Origamis renascence, then shouldn't Robert be considered one of its Renascence men?

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