Award-winning Paper Tree store owner, Linda Mihara, brings origami into the digital age with augmented reality experience created with Adobe Substance 3D and Aero

Award-winning Paper Tree store owner, Linda Mihara.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

San Francisco’s Japantown has been the center of the city’s Japanese American community since the early 1900s. And for nearly its entire history, Japantown has been home to the Mihara family. The Miharas’ store, Paper Tree, has been a cornerstone of Japantown business for 55 years. While it has gone through many iterations over the years, today it carries exquisite Japanese paper, stationery, and art supplies. But it is best known for origami, including the work of its co-owner and manager, origami artist and teacher Linda Mihara.

“Origami has been an important part of our family my whole life,” says Linda. “My grandfather, Tokinobu Mihara, wrote two of the first origami books written in English as a way to share Japanese culture with Americans. The magic of creating something special with just your hands and a simple sheet of paper never gets old for me.”

Now, in collaboration with Adobe and immersive agency Rock Paper Reality, Paper Tree has become a digital landmark for Japantown through an interactive augmented reality (AR) experience. Created using Adobe Aero Geospatial, powered by Google's Geospatial Creator, the AR experience uses real time geographic location to bring Linda’s stunning origami artwork to life throughout the streets of Japantown.

Ipad showing creations by Award-winning Paper Tree store owner, Linda Mihara.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

“I grew up in Japantown, and my family has lived here for generations,” says Linda. “The idea of using a 3D AR experience to bring origami, Paper Tree, and Japantown as a whole into the digital age is so exciting. I can’t wait to share it with more people.”

Prevailing through dark times with a creative spirit

Tokinobu followed his father to San Francisco in 1920. The family’s happy life was upended in 1942 when they were forcibly relocated to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming during World War II. Without access to optometry treatments, Tokinobu’s glaucoma rapidly deteriorated his eyesight, leading to blindness.

But Tokinobu did not let his sudden loss of sight or internment stop his creative spirit. While at Heart Mountain, he developed a system of Braille for the Japanese alphabet. Upon returning to San Francisco in 1949, he authored numerous books — on origami, on obtaining U.S. citizenship, and an English-Japanese dictionary. He also started a publishing and import business, called Oriental Culture Book Company, which closed in 1968 when Paper Tree was opened by Linda’s parents in Japantown.

“My grandfather thought origami was the perfect vehicle for sharing Japanese culture,” says Linda. “His books were unique with actual paper origami models inside so that people who had never seen origami before could understand the impact of folded paper art. I learned firsthand how it could connect people when my fourth-grade teacher saw me making origami and asked if I could teach it to the class. It lit a passion for teaching that has continued ever since.”

Images of origami created by Award-winning Paper Tree store owner, Linda Mihara.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

A new generation of creativity

While Linda has also done digital design work, including teaching herself Adobe Illustrator to enter a poster design contest where she won second place, origami and teaching remain her first loves. “There’s something about the physicality and dimensionality of the art that makes it special,” says Linda.

Linda has taken her origami expertise in many directions. She has taught classes and curated exhibitions for museums around the world. Her art has won awards and been featured in commercials and events for major brands such as Mitsubishi Motors, McDonald’s, Disney, and Hermes.

But Linda has always returned to the family business Paper Tree, which she officially took over in 2019 — just months before the pandemic closed its doors.

“It was a huge shock. I really didn’t know what to do,” says Linda. “But something magical happened. When people were stuck at home, they started taking up crafts, including origami. Online orders poured in and somehow we survived.”

Image of two people looking at art.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

Bringing origami to life in 3D AR

One of the things that makes origami so unique is its ability to transform a 2D piece of paper into a 3D piece of art. By taking advantage of 3D scanning technology, Linda believes that it’s possible to capture the intricacies of paper art and bring this ancient medium into the digital age.

That’s why when Adobe contacted Grace Horikiri, executive director of the Japantown Community Benefit District, about collaborating on a 3D art project to support Japantown, Linda and Paper Tree immediately came to mind. The cutting-edge AR experience developed by Rock Paper Reality started with 3D scans of Linda’s and other artists’ origami creations using photogrammetry capabilities in Adobe Substance 3D Sampler. After cleaning up the models, artists used Substance Sampler to turn photographs of origami paper into realistic materials. Then they applied the materials and textures with Substance 3D Painter and created scenes with Substance 3D Stager. After creating graphics and interfaces elements with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Rock Paper Reality brought the experience together in Adobe Aero.

Graphic created by Adobe Aero.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

With Adobe Aero, users don’t need to download a special app to view the AR experience. They simply scan a QR code at Paper Tree to start an immersive origami adventure on their smartphones. The experience invites people to walk around Japantown looking for colorful red and white envelopes floating in the air. User proximity triggers envelopes to open, revealing a larger-than-life origami diorama. People can walk around the origami figures, inspecting them from all angles to see the intricate folds that the artists used to create each piece. A pop-up display also shows viewers the name of the artist and which origami papers — available at Paper Tree — were used in the creation of the diorama.

Origami created by creations by Award-winning Paper Tree store owner, Linda Mihara.

Image source: Adobe.

Unlike many AR experiences, Google’s Geospatial Creator anchors the interactive 3D envelopes to specific locations along Japantown’s Buchanan Street thanks to the Photorealistic 3D Tiles from Google Maps Platform. This means that people don’t have to stay in one location. They can walk up and down the street to find all of the envelopes and see other stores along the way. Once they have collected all dioramas, a flock of gold origami cranes flutter across the sky to celebrate their victory.

A flock of gold origami crane.

Image source: Adobe.

“The entire process has been amazing,” says Linda. “The Rock Paper Reality team came to the store to photograph all of the origami paper, and that was all they needed to convey the texture, color, and reality of the figures in 3D. Young, tech-savvy audiences are super familiar with using QR codes, so it’s simple for them to click and start seeing origami in a fun, interactive way.”

Image created by Rock Paper Reality using Adobe Substance 3D.

Image source: image created by Rock Paper Reality using Adobe Substance 3D.

Seeing digital origami 20 feet tall makes audiences want to pick up a book and learn to fold paper themselves. In this way, the AR experience is helping to pass down the art of origami to digital generations.

Children making origami.

Image source: Adobe & Bonfire Labs.

“My grandpa’s goal was always to connect with people and share Japanese culture, and his origami books were revolutionary for the time,” says Linda. “So for us to now use 3D models and AR experiences to introduce new generations to origami is something that truly continues his legacy. I think he’d be thrilled and proud to see Paper Tree’s AR experience today.”

Learn more about Paper Tree.

Linda is a changemaker who stands out and inspires us with her passion, creativity, and vision to make a positive impact in her community.

Learn more about the AR project from Rock Paper Reality at Adobe MAX in the workshop session Create Stunning 3D Client Projects with Adobe Substance 3D and Aero [L6107].