Category Archives: Design

Origami PV Window Shade

As I have said a number of times, these days engineering and design students really should learn origami.  So many interesting designs are coming out based on fold sheets, sometimes self-assembling, and sometimes bio-inspired. And in every case, elegant.

Case in point: an interesting idea being developed by Prevalent (Australia):  “Soligami”, an origami inspired window shade with photovoltaic patches to generate solar power [1].   This is designed to work in urban windows, so city dwellings can be more self-sufficient [2].

The basic idea is to create a window shade that captures part of the sunlight to create electricity, letting some of the light bounce through for indirect illumination. A simple window shade reflects some light, which is basically wasted.  A PV window coating generates electricity but dims the light to the interior, and generally is not adjustable.  The PV blind system seeks to get the advantages of controllable shade and privacy, while generating electricity from the sunlight.

One of the key challenges is to capture some of the light, while letting some through.  IN addition, it is important to capture enough light to be useful, and to work throughout the day, i.e., as the geometry of the sun and window vary.

This is a job for geometry!

The design involves folded a grill though which the sunlight reflects off sever surfaces and then into the room.  PV collectors are located on some of the internal surfaces where the sunlight is reflected.  The holes in the grid reflect from a range of angles, acting as a partial concentrator.

The overall screen is designed to fold flat and open to the grid, in the style of origami.  It looks like the geometry of the cuts and folds helps give the screen enough rigidity to hang as a screen over the window, will little other structure needed.

This looks cool, and is said to be in development for mass production.  I suspect that this hybrid material and complex geometry present some interesting challenges.

I’m pretty sure that the basic concept can be realized in a variety of materials, and with different geometries.  So there is plenty to experiment with here.

I’ll also toss in some pragmatic challenges that will be important for a real world product.

I wonder how you can keep the PV surfaces clean.  I don’t know about you, by my window blinds are always dusty, and it’s not that easy to get the dust off.  Dust and dirt will degrade the efficiency of the PV units on the blinds, and cleaning them looks to be a fiddly process. (Run a duster through each hole?)  And you don’t want to be too rough, lest you scar the PV units or warp the panels.

Is this device is intended to open and close, e.g., to raise out of the way and lower again?  If so, then the folding must be rugged and stand up to repeated iterations.  For that matter, it needs to stand up to bumps and abrasions.  In general, it needs to be tough enough to survive in a space with humans (and possibly pets).

Looking at the geometry in the illustrations, it looks to me like the basic concept can work at many scales, i.e., with holes larger or smaller.  Changes in scale will change the amount of light emitted, and the surface area of the PV surfaces.  Of course, there are trade offs, including more wiring, limits on the mechanics of folding for different materials, and so on.  In other words, there is a pretty large design space to explore here.

This is very cool.  I look forward to seeing how this comes out.

  1. Pervalent. Solgami: Solar Origami Scree. 2019,
  2. Adele Peters, This origami screen turns your windows into solar panels, in FAst Comapny. 2019.


Dutch Train of the Future?

I was intrigued by the headline about “Trains Of The Future Fuse Work, Home, And Transit” [1].

Just how does a train “fuse” with “home”?

In the future, it might become impossible distinguish between a train interior, a living room, a hotel lobby and a specialty coffee bar (From [1])
The caption reads, “In the future, it might become impossible distinguish between a train interior, a living room, a hotel lobby and a specialty coffee bar” (!)

As it turns out, the design is actually for more flexible spaces in the train, generally based on contemporary open plan offices—i.e., the train “fuses” with “work” or “hotel/coffee shop”, but not “home”.  I mean, it is extremely easy to distinguish the train interior from a living room.

In a way, this isn’t too surprising, since “home” is generally the opposite of “transit”, by definition.  An exception is for people who work at home and everywhere else (and nomads, in general).  I guess this open-plan-office-train might feel like home if you live at the office or work at home.

The design itself is OK, at least if you find open plan offices “stunning”.  Adding standing desks and so on will certainly make young professionals feel “at home” as they begin their work day hours before arriving at work, and continue into the night.

But the design doesn’t do much for a traveler, or a traveling family.

And as far as I can see, the designers weren’t even trying to support or improve “home” or family.  The young professional designers designed something to solve their own “problems”. As usual.

  1. Aridan Mecava, Dutch Trains Of The Future Fuse Work, Home, And Transit, in Pop-Up City. 2018.


Cool Dodecahedral Gripper

File this under, “I want one”!

This summer researchers from Harvard report on a new design for an undersea gripper, inspired by origami [2]. The device is “a folding polyhedral enclosure”, essentially a dodecahedral box that unfolds and folds to gently capture delicate specimens within the box.

The goal is to be able to corral soft bodied creatures—think jellyfish—for close examination without harming them.

The origami-inspired design is a 2D layout of articulated pieces (hexagons and pentagons and the final triangular segments of a hexagon) that fold into a complete dodecahedron.  (For underwater use, the seams have flexible rubber seals, so the box is (somewhat) water tight.)  The design involves a clever arrangement of actuators that transforms “a 10-DOF system to a 1-DOF system”. (p.1)

Aside from the elegant dodecahedral geometry, what caught my eye is the elegant simplicity of this folding mechanism.  The fact that it runs from a single rotary power source is a bonus.

However, this is not a one-off.  The research is based on a theory which makes it possible to create any 3D polyhedron from a foldable 1D array.  The actuator is a “plane symmetric Bricard linkage” described in the nineteenth century.  This design replaces actuators at each fold with a complex linkage. They note that this works at many scales, and the folding is completely reversible.

The linkage and the panes of the enclosure are all simple enough to be fabricated with simple tools, laser cutters an 3D printers.

This is really cool!

By the way, scaled up this design would make a cool novelty “cone of silence”, that folds up out of the floor to envelop part of a room within a dodecahedron.

  1. Lindsay Brownell, Studying aliens of the deep, in Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering – News. 2018.
  2. Zhi Ern Teoh, Brennan T. Phillips, Kaitlyn P. Becker, Griffin Whittredge, James C. Weaver, Chuck Hoberman, David F. Gruber, and Robert J. Wood, Rotary-actuated folding polyhedrons for midwater investigation of delicate marine organisms. Science Robotics, 3 (20) 2018.


Robot Wednesday

IoT: The Internet of Trash

Stacey Higginbotham writes in IEEE Spectrum about yet another ramification of the Internet of Too Many Things—the Looming E-Waste Problem [1].

I have commented on the poor design (here, here, here,  here) and likely problems (here, here) with the IoT. One of the recurring themes is that no one is in charge of these devices, so no one is responsible for how they work or what they do.

Higginbotham adds yet another implication of this basic flaw: there is no one to recycle the device at the end of its life.

She points out that the plethora of new IoT devices are built on the same model as conventional consumer electronics, only more so. There is already a huge problem with e-waste from broken and obsolete devices. IoT technology basically turns everything into e-waste.

In addition, IoT technology also puts everything on the short life span of cheap electronics. Even if the battery in your “smart toaster” is replaceable, who will do it? And when it stops working (perhaps because the software is no longer compatible), it is now e-waste filled with exotic materials that need careful handling.

If your smart toaster even can be recycled. A lot of IoT stuff cannot be recycled in any easy way.

“A lack of forethought will leave us with a mountain of obsolete devices and no way to dispose of them”

Making IoT that is both useable and recycleable takes serious engineering. And it would be nice to build longer lasting products.

The Internet of Too Many Things: not just poorly design and bad for users, but bad for the planet, too.

  1. Stacey Higginbotham, The Internet of Trash: IoT Has a Looming E-Waste Problem, in IEEE Spectrum – Internet. 2018.

Cool Bioinspired Cooling

One of the big challenges for micro- and nanoengineering is heat.  As devices and components get closer together, thermal energy becomes significant, indeed overwhelming.  Essentially any useful activity generates waste heat (i.e., more than is used for the activity) which must be dissipated.   We have all seen the absurd looking cooling fins, not to mention electric fans, on contemporary computer components.  Sheesh!  It works, but it sure isn’t elegant engineering.

An example of heroic measures used to dissipate heat in contemporary electronic systems.

This spring a research team reports on analysis of the design of porous membranes, materials which have columns of liquid which remain contained [1].  The end of the column is exposed, and can evaporate.   (See the article for illustrations of this design.) In principle, these columns can dissipate heat efficiently, while protecting the interior from moisture or dust.

This is cool work, and it’s not surprising that there is considerable interest in deploying it as soon as possible.

The thing that caught my eye is the fact that this design is inspired by the skins of ancient insects, Springtails (Collembola Entognatha) [3]. These insects have skins with complicated textures, “bristles and a comb-like hexagonal or rhombic mesh of interconnected nanoscopic granules” ([2]).

The new work creates similar “sharp edged” structures in Silicon (easy to manufacture), which has led to the recent results.

As Jeremy Hsu put is, “The Electronics Cooling System 400 Million Years in the Making”.

Cool! in more than one way.

  1. Damena D. Agonafer, Hyoungsoon Lee, Pablo A. Vasquez, Yoonjin Won, Ki Wook Jung, Srilakshmi Lingamneni, Binjian Ma, Li Shan, Shuai Shuai, Zichen Du, Tanmoy Maitra, James W. Palko, and Kenneth E. Goodson, Porous micropillar structures for retaining low surface tension liquids. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, 514:316-327, 2018/03/15/ 2018.
  2. Ralf Helbig, Julia Nickerl, Christoph Neinhuis, and Carsten Werner, Smart Skin Patterns Protect Springtails. PLOS ONE, 6 (9):e25105, 2011.
  3. Jeremy Hsu, The Electronics Cooling System 400 Million Years in the Making, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise. 2018.


Bioinspired “spring origami”

Our latter day Prometheans (is that a word?) heartily boast of creating “programmable matter” and “4D printing”.  This would be crazy if it weren’t true that astonishing, near magical designs are coming every day.

Many of these developments are inspired by nature and by origami.  As I have said, it is clear that all Engineering and Design students should learn origami as part of the twenty first century curriculum.

This spring researchers at ETH Zurich report on an cool development which is inspired by the wing of an earwig [1].  This is especially interesting because the biological system actually works better than conventional origami.

The wing of the Dermaptera has an extremely large range from compactly folded to open in flight. It also deploys without muscular action (i.e., it unfolds), but snaps into a strong rigid form for flight. Their analysis shows that “current origami models are not sufficient to describe its exceptional functionality” ([1], p.1387)

They conclude that the key feature is that unlike “strict” origami, the earwig wings are not folded on straight rigid lines.  Instead, they folds are curved and consist of  elastic biopolymer, which is springy  The biopolymer behaves as a system of extensional and rotational springs.

Not origami, but origami plus (biological) clockwork!

The researchers explain that this bioinspired analysis opens a broad space for “spring origami”, which exceeds the capabilities of traditional origami. The paper has the technical details, which, among other things, involve complex surfaces of energy levels in multiple springs which yield bistable regimes (i.e., snap through).

This analysis makes possible the design and fabrication of many different low energy, folding systems.

“We transferred the biological design principles extracted from the earwig wing into a functional synthetic folding system that can be directly manufactured by 4D printing” ([1], p. 1390)

“Our ability to tune the energy barrier between bistable states using simple geometrical and material properties […] enables the design and fabrication of spring origami structures that can undergo fast morphing, triggered by an environmental stimulus.”

The researchers see potential for many applications, including antennas and solar arrays for space craft, architecture, robots, or packaging.

I’m seeing a fancy new version of an umbrella—lighter, stronger, and simpler design.

  1. Jakob A. Faber, Andres F. Arrieta, and André R. Studart, Bioinspired spring origami. Science, 359 (6382):1386, 2018.
  2. Peter Rüegg, Earwigs and the art of origami, in ETH News. 2018.



Robot Origami Wednesday

Yet More AI Fashion Advice

Computer geeks are just as interested in fashionable clothing as anyone else, though they tend to apply the mental hammers they possess to driving the nail.  There are any number of projects that are applying contemporary AI to the alleged problems of finding (and creating) fashionable garments and outfits.

Whatever the problem may really be, this research essentially treats it as a “recommender” system, a la online shopping and streaming services. This leads to two products, a “virtual stylist” to advise you on what to wear, and a “trend spotter” to advise producers about what to sell.

So who would want to use an AI recommender?

This kind of technology can probably detect group uniforms pretty easily, especially if social media and other metadata are included in the data.  This may be useful for market intelligence, but probably not terribly useful to individuals.  If you have to have a computer to tell you how to dress like the people you admire, you’re pretty lost.

On the other hand, some people might enjoy having a “virtual stylist” who helps them construct and maintain an individual look. For that matter, the ability to generate something that is in the style of X, but new, would be exactly what you might be looking for. What will Susie be wearing today?  She’s always ahead of the curve.  Etc.

Underlying these ideas are collections of data about what people are wearing, and the usual “people who liked this, also liked this other thing”.  Grist to this mill are images from the internet, social media posts, personal shopping history, and metadata about who’s who and what they do and want.  Many readers will recognize that this is also the data and technology used by advertising and intelligence services, who are looking to predict specific kinds of individual behaviors.

This fall, a team from UCSD and Adobe report on yet another permutation of this technique, which uses sophisticated image processing and machine learning to create “look plausible yet substantially different from” the examples [1].  (Note: their paper cites quite a bit of earlier work, which is worth looking over.)

The most interesting idea is to use the “user X image” preference data to generate new items that are predicted to be attractive to the user.

a richer form of recommendation might consist of guiding users and designers by helping them to explore the space of potential fashion images and styles.

This is pretty neat, and most machine learning approaches can’t do it nearly as well as what this group has done.

The technical details are non-trivial, see the paper.

This work is interesting, but there are a number of questions raised by this work.

First of all, it’s far from clear that this is addressing a problem that anyone needs to solve. For those who go beyond pure utilitarianism, “fashion” is a signaling system. What you wear is supposed to send messages about yourself.

The two messages most commonly sent are either “look at me, desire me” or “I belong to this group”.  Note that these are somewhat contradictory messages, asserting either individuality or conformity, respectively.

How do these messages relate to “preferences”?

Second, the authors suggest that this technology could be used as an aide to designers:

In the future, we believe this opens up a promising line of work in using recommender systems for design.”

“We believe that such frameworks can lead to richer forms of recommendation, where content recommendation and content generation are more closely linked”

In other words, this is a feedback loop, from design to user’s reception, back to designer.

As I have said before, this would seem to be a mechanism that pushes designers to produce “more of the same”; scarcely a formula for creativity.  But perhaps the AI is actually chasing user’s reactions which will eventually reject “more of the same”, it is retrospective—not a formula for being a fashion leader.

On the other hand, this technology does generate new designs, though it is hard to judge just how creative it is. Also, the technique learns continuously, which seems critical to me-preferences change.  Done right, the AI model might be a good way to represent a target user and to generate designs that hone in on their (momentary) preferences.

However, there are lots of underlying issues.

To the degree that a person wants to make fashion statements, this process of digging out “preferences” and generating examples that exemplify them is only indirectly related to whatever the intended statement might be. The AI knows little, if anything, about the semantics of the clothing in the images, which are highly subjective in any case.

Many fashion preferences are based on social aspirations, such as the desire to emulate a celebrity and / or fit in with a clique.  These factors are not only not visible in the image, they are completely missing from the concept of a personalized design. Don’t you want a social design?

The entire process is based on (small) 2D images with standard poses. This is a very impoverished set of information. Users have been trained to deal with tiny 2D mages by the internet, but this is not a full representation of “fashion” or anything else.  Clothing is 3D and bodies move, and both exist in physical context (e.g., a dance floor). These factors are missing from both the input and output of this AI.

The training  uses ratings and other inputs from observers as proxies for “preferences”.  It isn’t clear exactly what these data actually represent, and there is a very real possibility that there are multiple “communities” with different preferences all using the same online services.  Averaging across multiple sub-cultures will produce a meaningless common denominator.  (The research project used tiny, probably homogeneous samples, so it doesn’t explore this problem.)

Building a tight feedback loop between user preferences and the AI opens the possibility of hacking or gaming the system.  Flooding the inputs with ratings and supposed positive comments could manipulate the recommendations. I could easily imagine a PR campaign that combined celebrity product placement with ‘AI placement’ that biases the results in favor of the product.

Worse, there could well be AIs gaming other AIs.  It could devolve to the point where everyone has a ‘virtual fashion advisor’, and all the AIs are tracking the behavior of all the other AIs. Kind of like professional fashionistas do. Sigh.

I have to ask, just who is the AI serving?  The researchers seem to believe that the designer’s interests are aligned with the user, but I don’t think it is that simple.  Designers usually are or work for producers, who aim to sell the product.  Is the recommender helping the consumer or promoting consumption?

We all know the answer to that question. Technology just like this is already used by advertising and intelligence to track and predict the behavior of individuals. This behavior modelling is not for the benefit of the subject, it is for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful.

If these types of system come into wide use, it will probably change concepts of fashion recommendations.  An on-line suggestion that “people like you, also liked these items” is not valued as much as a recommendation from a close friend.  Similarly, trends spotted (or created) by AI will be considered second rate, compared to actual human trend spotting and creativity.  People will work hard to outguess the AI.

I predict that the more virtual assistants there are, the more valuable a human assistant will become!

  1. Wang-Cheng Kang, Chen Fang, Zhaowen Wang, and Julian McAuley, Visually-Aware Fashion Recommendation and Design with Generative Image Models. arXiv, 2017.
  2. Will Knight,  Amazon Has Developed an AI Fashion Designer: The retail giant is taking a characteristically algorithmic approach to fashion. MIT Technology Review online.august 24 2017,
  3. Jackie Snow This AI Learns Your Fashion Sense and Invents Your Next Outfit: A new kind of AI system could create personalized clothing based on a shopper’s taste. MIT Technology Review online.November 16 2017,