Origami Blockchain



Blockchain is fascinating to me beyond the financial use cases - it's a protocol for scarcity and it trustlessly enforces smart contracts. The internet today is copy based - if I send an image to a friend, I'm not sending that image, I'm sending a copy of it. This is not how the physical world works, it physically cannot work this way. Blockchain changes this, it enables scarcity and uniqueness to exist digitally at the protocol level. By bringing this very real, seemingly trivial concept in our day-to-day lives, to the digital world we are bringing the digital world closer to the physical world. I see this process of bringing IRL concepts online as integral to furthering our interaction with the digital world and how it operates. This project was an opportunity to explain this perspective of blockchain to a large audience. I created hundreds of unique physical artifacts, connected them to a blockchain, and showed this connection through a web app to start this conversation.


At the time, I had recently left my job to travel and freelance with a creative crew of folks. My friend, Chris, and I were exploring the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, while thinking about this project. The landscape ultimately had a large influence on the designs and color pallet of our artifacts. We chose origami as the unique physical artifact, it has a hand-assembled quality that emphasizes its uniqueness and physical nature. The experience required 500 pieces of origami, which posed an interesting design challenge for assembly and transportation while traveling. Developing 500 unique and appealing designs alone was tough, ensuring they also met this design criteria added another layer of complexity. Sliceform-origami allowed us to achieve a diverse set of designs we liked, while still packing flat for transportation. The majority of our experimentation and testing took place in Lima, Peru; ESAN University allowed us to prototype with the laser cutter in their fab lab. A small local laser cutting studio in Lima helped us with the massive amount of cutting required. The yellow sheet of paper to the right took about 2 hours to cut and yielded enough for 10 origami pieces.  


My first stop was Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles, my second was Telstra's Vantage conference in Melbourne. Each time someone visited the display I would transfer the digital ownership of an artifact to them live on the Ethereum blockchain, while handing them the physical artifact. A video of this process can be seen to the right. The experience opened up discussions to digital scarcity and blockchain, separate from cryptocurrency. It was humbling to hear multiple people remarking at the simplicity of the demonstration for such a complex concept. However, not all was smooth - there were plenty of questions regarding web3, transaction time, and wallets, which reminded me how numb and accepting I've become of the UX issues in the blockchain space.

Although this may simply seem like an inefficient design and manufacturing process, Chris and I both saw it as a challenge and found it exciting to work with strangers face-to-face around the world to pull it off.

We traveled with the cut designs to Medellín, Colombia, where we focused on  assembly, front-end development of the web app, and smart contract deployment. Friends traveling with us lent their hands for assembly, which took about a combined 100 hours to complete. Creating the unique digital instance of each artifact took significantly less time, on the order of minutes. The disparity in time was a realization of why we value physical assets more than their digital counterparts - the compression of time tends to be visibly greater for the physical version. It was a reminder that we are not trying to move the physical world to the digital world, but rather make the two more interoperable.

From Colombia, I traveled with the 500 assembled origami artifacts to Boston for packaging in acrylic. From a display perspective, we felt housing these in acrylic would make them feel more like artifacts, museum-exhibit-esque. The acrylic didn't turn out exactly as we had planned, so there was a last minute rush of adjusting components for everything to fit together, and achieve the aesthetic we intended. Shortly after packaging was complete, I brought them on the road to preach the word of digital scarcity. 


Update: Given the positive feedback from this experience, I was commissioned to create a similar experience for the 2019 Australian Open. 

Unfortunately, I had to set aside the global galavanting for creating this version. The origami was "upgraded" to a 3D-printed scale model of Rod Laver Arena (I prefer the origami.) These models did not look unique, but they were each uniquely tied to a specific seat in the arena. Guests were given models that corresponded to the tickets they had for the match, and their attendance of the 2019 AO was engraved immutably on the blockchain. An accompanying app displayed this information and offered an augmented reality overlay for the model, showing the location of the recipient's seat. The video below shows the AR experiences, the seat location is towards the end. 


I got a little carried away and added lights with inductive coils inside each model. I built a table embedded with the mating inductive coils, so the models would light up on display when placed on the table. Inside this wiring nightmare of 18 gauge and shift registers, I connected an arduino to drive the power supply of each coil. The arduino was programmed so I could ping it with a seat number, from a recipient's ticket, and the table would only supply power to the corresponding model. This provided a further illusion of uniqueness to each model. When I wasn't handing out models, the table would supply power in ways that made all the models light up in different patterns. Jamming more tech into the origami project was fun, but I think the changes in this new version distract from the blockchain explanation I intended with the first version.


Technology Stack & Tools Involved:

Solidity, React, JavaScript, CAD, Adobe Illustrator, Laser Cutter, 3D Printing, AR, Unity, C#, PCB Design