Johannes Overvelde was pursuing a PhD in applied mathematics at Harvard University when he met Chuck Hoberman, designer of the Hoberman Sphere, a collapsible rainbow ball for kids. Both lived in Cambridge and had similar interests. Overvelde was working on developing transformable materials that could change stiffness, and Hoberman, an architect who also studies kinetic structures, had been thinking about how different materials could take on the properties of his sphere, changing form by articulating at different joints.
Borrowing bits from the Hoberman Sphere and the origami-based concept of snapology, where interlocking strips of paper snap together to create rigid structures, Overvelde and his team at Harvard have created what they call a metamaterial: an expandable structure that can be used on its own, or as a building block to create other structures. The attenuated cubes, which have three degrees of articulation, are made of thin polymer sheets that fold flat but can also pop up in a variety of different ways, just like the Hoberman Sphere. By attaching it to a pneumatic hose, a user can inflate a cube to create a bigger 3D structure. Overvelde says the material has numerous applications, from nano-scale stents that can be inserted into arteries and then expanded, to walls, which would fold open and ventilate your house when it gets hot.