Above the Fold: Origami Drives Robot, Satellite Design


Earlier this summer, Wired ran a story I wrote about a new type of solar-powered satellite. The twist? The satellite unfolds like a huge paper blossom once it’s in space, making it easier for researchers to launch large hardware up to the cosmos. (Before launch, it’s wrapped and folded up into a tiny package, then strapped to a rocket.) This collaboration between BYU and NASA is one of many origami-inspired projects found among today’s emerging technologies.

Now, researchers from Harvard say they’re working on thin, light, easily transportable robots that fold themselves up like paper. The researchers say that this technology could be applied to robots designed for space exploration, where the machines can essentially re-build and re-program themselves, free of human aid.

Check out the “self-folding crawler” in this video:

At $100, the robots are super cheap to make, and even include some paper in their composition. (Paper, as well as Shrinky Dinks. I hereby nominate this for tech story of the year, solely on that.) The idea is that they can be easily re-configured, on the go, to fulfill any number of tasks. The paper and Shrinky Dinks (!) allow the robot to be light and flexible, and to morph on command.

“In the same way that if you have a Word document and you want to change a few words — you just reprint it at your home computer — you could take a robot’s digital plan, change a few things and reprint it,” Sam Felton, a member of the Harvard team, told the press.

Robert Lang — origami grandmaster, paper crane whisperer, textile acrobat — served as a consultant on the BYU/NASA project. His career draws clear connections between the ancient Japanese handicraft and physics, as well as math. Check out his website for what he has to say on “computational origami,” a phrase that I hope reaches buzzword status in coming years.

Future pop-up technologies could include self-assembling emergency shelters, super-compact airbags for cars, and cardiac stents that safely unfold in the human body from within.

Read the Harvard press release here. And oh yeah, I’ll leave you with this:

I mean, c’mon. Do they still make Shrinky Dinks? They should. They’re retro and hipster enough. Urban Outfitters should be all over it…


How to Be a Tourist (and Not a Clueless Schmuck) in Japan

I follow Travel + Leisure on Facebook, and yesterday they re-posted an old slideshow of theirs: The Anti-Tourist Travel Rules. It got me thinking: How does one be an “anti-tourist” in Japan? That is, how can you blend in and know the ropes, before even getting off the plane?

So I gathered some of my own observations from my time in Japan, in hopes that it will be of use to you. This practical primer will help you feel (and appear) less like a wide-eyed noob on your first trip to Japan. Navigate metro lines and sashimi menus in good faith, for I come bearing wisdom! Read on, anxious traveler!

1. Be very polite. Because everyone will be very polite to you. One of the things I love about Japan is that everyone takes pride in their jobs, and people genuinely want to help you. Here in the States, gas station attendants or store clerks can act bored as hell, or outwardly surly, frustrated that this “lowly” minimum wage gig is what’s putting bread on the table.

But in Japan, everyone realizes that their job plays an integral role in society, making for the best customer service on Earth. This makes the country refreshingly devoid of scorned patrons screaming cuss words, and threats of frosty Yelp reviews, to restaurant staff. (Which would be a very un-Japanese thing to do, anyway.)

2. Bring a coin purse. You’ll be using lots of coins. In Japan, coins aren’t Tiddlywinks flirting with extinction. Yen coins reach values of up to five U.S. dollars. Five dollars! That’s a drink! When have you ever bought a drink with a coin? Pretty awesome, but on this last trip, it left me digging in my pockets a lot. It also made for a clumsy checkout at 7-Eleven when I was buying my plastic-wrapped, melon-flavored French toast.

Now’s a good time to mention Japan’s a cash society, and very few places take cards. So, coin purse = OK. Fanny pack = still not OK.

3. DON’T BE THAT LOUD AMERICAN. Especially on trains. Japanese trains hover around “pin drop” noise level, so refrain from talking loudly, and from talking on your phone at all. You won’t find any breakdancing or other raucous means of solicitation on these subways.

(pic via)

4. Bring shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Lots of places require you to take off your shoes before entering. (You’ll always take them off if you’re in somebody’s house.) On this last trip, I was constantly hunched on the ground, lacing and re-lacing my Chucks, when I should’ve brought sandals or boat shoes or Crocs (which are absolutely still a widely-worn item in Japan).

(pic via)

5. Don’t tip. Like a lot of other countries, Japan doesn’t expect gratuity for servers, barbers, cabbies, porters, skycaps, bellhops, acupuncturists, court jesters, soothsayers, human footrests, or anyone else.

6. Load up the apps. I suggest bringing your phone, leaving it on airplane mode, and connecting to Wi-Fi when it’s available. Outfit your mobile with downloadable city guides and metro maps you can use offline. I recommend City Maps 2Go and the official Tokyo subway app.

7. Sign up for free Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is strangely spotty in Japan. Your best bet is Starbucks, but for some very counterintuitive reason, you need to sign up on the Internet… before being able to use their free Internet. You can do that here, then log in once you’re at Starbucks, sampling a matcha Frappuccino.

8. Follow the rules. If it says walk up this staircase and down that staircase, then do so. If it says no smoking in front of the building, then abstain from cancer sticks for now. Signage is your friend. Japanese people are ridiculously kind, and expect foreigners to be utterly confused, so don’t get super stressed out over unintentional infractions. Plus, any signs you’ll see will never be preachy, threatening, or litigious. It’s just that, in Japan, people don’t regularly break the rules, take advantage of the system, or generally be douche bags. They just think that following the rules yields a safe, organized society — which for them, it does.

Just remember that when you’re abroad, in any country, you automatically become a representative of where you’re from. You’re a grassroots ambassador. If you show up and act like an unruly asshole, oblivious to the environment around you, then the locals will think everyone from your country is like that. This is especially true, I think, in a homogenous, island nation like Japan. (When I lived there, I once met a little girl who said me and my friends were the first non-Japanese people she’d ever seen in real life.)

9. When in doubt, bow. And say “sumimasen,” a Swiss army knife of a phrase that can be used as “excuse me,” “sorry,” or “thank you,” depending on the context. While in Japan, there’ll be times when you’ll have no idea what’s going on: There’s the lack of English, the byzantine metro systems, the zany TV, the mystery meat on your plate. But that’s what makes it fun. Be patient, friendly, flexible, polite, and willing to learn.

Send me a postcard!