An Origami Artist Shows How to Fold Ultra-Realistic Creatures

Before becoming a physicist, before being the editor in chief of the Journal of Quantum Electronics, before helping NASA design its largest space telescope, Robert Lang learned to fold paper.

Already a numbers whiz at age six, Lang had trouble sitting still during math class. His teacher gave him an origami book to keep him occupied and Lang started to fold. He never stopped. He folded his way through high school and his undergraduate years at Caltech, decorating his shelves with a parade of tiny paper ants. He kept folding throughout his graduate work in applied physics, when in 1987, he made an actual-size cuckoo clock after a trip to Germany’s Black Forest.

Eventually in 2001, Lang quit his science day jobs and committed to origami full time. The ancient art still requires artists to fashion their creations out of a single, square piece of paper, without tearing or gluing pieces together. But now, artists use mathematics to map out their incredibly detailed and lifelike paper creations. Lang has built musicians strumming guitars, a hummingbird drinking from a flower, a fish with 400 scales, and a female praying mantis devouring her mate.

Lang’s work has been showcased in museums across the country, but his facility with folding doesn’t only yield beautiful sculptures. He’s helped design stents that collapse, so they’re easier to thread through arteries, and created computer programs that use origami to model how an airbag should be packed away in the dashboard. And he worked with NASA to create a telescope that folds up during launch and then unfurls once in space.

“There are many ways to define complexity for origami,” says Lang in WIRED’s latest video. You could count the number of folds needed to finish a design, or tally the more advanced moves needed to create a certain shape. Lang uses a combination of these two metrics as he fashions and refashions a cicada, a classic origami shape. To the untrained eye, the first design looks vaguely bug-like: two wings poke out from behind a square head. Soon the creature gains eyes and antennae. Lang’s fingers carefully crease and manipulate the paper, following a series of intricate steps whose purpose isn’t immediately clear. Then, almost out of nowhere, six delicate legs appear. A segmented carapace emerges. Suddenly he’s holding a lifelike insect, ready to take flight.

Check out the video above. You can also watch the full series on WIRED’s free app for Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, and Amazon Fire TV.

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