Mobility

Smartphone as microscope: The crowdfunded project that could bring science to the masses

A crowdfunded 3D printed microscope that hooks on the back of smartphones and tablets has the ability to democratize science education and field research.

compatibility-iphone-5s.jpg
The Catalyst Frame Microscope fits on a smartphone or tablet.
 Image: Catalyst Frame

Think back to fifth grade science class: The teacher had some microbes on a slide, which she carefully put underneath the light of the heavy-duty matte black microscope that sat collecting dust on the counter most of the year. Thirty kids gathered around to take turns looking through the viewfinder, with one eye squinted shut and the other desperately searching for cell movement. After one short minute, the turn was over, and the next kid was up. At the end of class, that was it. The microscope was shoved back under the counter until the lesson plan called for it again.

Jing Luo wants to make every day microscope day.

He 3D-printed a portable microscope that hooks onto your smartphone or tablet and called it the Catalyst Frame Microscope. Luo recently raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter and more than $2,000 with his current Indiegogo campaign, which has almost three weeks left.

"These microscopes are going on an amazing journey of discovery, learning, and inspiration," said Luo, founder and creator of Catalyst Frame.

SEE: 15 awesome images from the Catalyst Frame smartphone microscope

The journey

Luo is a great example of a maker and 21st century entrepreneur. His background is in molecular cell biology, but when he graduated from UC Berkeley, he started a tutoring business. On average, his students improved one to two letter grades. He was ecstatic to find how much progress they were making and excited to discover how capable he was of being a leader, so he started brainstorming other ideas to continue making positive impacts in science and engineering.

Luo figured he should learn how to use the tools that would allow him to "build products and services of the future." And for him, that started with CAD software and 3D printing.

While researching innovations in biology, he started talking to friends in the field about their challenges. One told him that traditional microscopes were too bulky to carry out in the field, limiting research.

Luo looked into how to assemble cheap DIY smartphone microscopes, but found they were clunky and inefficient. So he decided to start from scratch. The entire design process only took two to three months. Part of what allowed Luo to work so quickly was learning CAD so he could 3D print his prototypes. He realized design limitations with traditional injection molding and manufacturing processes were too much trouble, so Luo built it himself.

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A panorama of a bee leg.
 Image: Catalyst Frame

The current version is the fourth prototype, printed using a Stratasys printer though Red Eye on Demand (a Stratasys company), which used a high quality ABS-like material. The first two prototypes were printed through Shapeways, and the third was made with Makerbot. Luo knew the fourth was the winner once he saw the CAD design. The microscope has a mounting for the microscope lens, but the piece doesn't touch the lens itself (which sets it apart from others on the market).

"One of the main [ways] I was hoping to be useful is in field medicine because it's so powerful. It works just like a real microscope, and that's really important because it keeps it sterile," he said. "It's one of a few smartphone microscopes where you can move the slide around."

The lens only has to be focused one time using the knob. After that, it's like using a smartphone camera. It can take photos, videos, panoramics, slow motion, or even time-lapse images. It works with any smartphone or tablet. The lens has a range of magnification of 30/50/170 or 30/170/340, which improves as your phone camera is upgraded.

"Magnification combines with a multiplicative effect, so if you were to combine a 2x lens with a 3x lens you'd get a total of 6x. The same applies here, the 340x optical magnification combines with the 4.5x digital magnification to get a total of 1530x magnification," Luo said.

However, the image can't be infinitely magnified from a microscope lens with simply higher power cameras. Past the resolution limit, everything starts getting blurry, he added. But there are lower magnification lenses with higher resolutions that he may experiment with in the future.

To build the first round of product, Luo is using a Form1+ 3D printer (which was also originally crowdfunded). It's in the mail, so he's ready to start as soon as possible and is already considering changes he can make to the design. One may be to add a hinge so that the microscope wouldn't require a case, but would tuck up into itself.

The microscope uses two AAA batteries, a design choice made by Luo because they are universally available, and this device is marketed to scientists or researchers studying in remote areas or people using the device in developing nations.

Once he had the working prototype, he decided to crowdfund it on Kickstarter. The Indiegogo campaign is being used to raise more awareness and more funds to scale production.

"That way, I can include other things like trying to include a tripod, so you can use it hands free or holding it," he said. "It wasn't initially included in the budget, but because we are raising more money, this is more and more possible."

Bringing science to the masses

The US ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, according to the Department of Education. Only 16% of high school seniors are proficient in STEM and interested in a career STEM fields.

We're inundated with reasons to teach children how to code, but it's just as important to focus on basic science skills, particularly in elementary and middle school, since that's where the journey starts.

The US needs to address the way we teach science. Last year, the Program for International Student Assessment (which tests 15-year-olds) found that 22 education systems scored above the US average in science. In 2009, there were 18 that scored higher.

Education was a major reason Luo created this versatile microscope. Almost every child and teenager has a smartphone these days. Putting this new tool in the hands of students and young researchers can democratize scientific education and research.

"There's so much life out there, so many tiny, tiny organisms," he said. "When you realize that is right in front of you in a little tiny cup of water... it will make a huge difference for the next generation."

Many backers of the crowdfunding campaigns are teachers, and they gave Luo the idea of including a tripod mount to work with iPads or other tablets in the classroom. He thinks he can easily 3D print that to go with the microscope.

"I'm hearing from doctors, vets, and teachers -- and Kickstarter is cool and all -- but I can't wait to get all these [printed] and ship them out and see what people can do with them," he said.

Also see

About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

27 comments
kaypoh
kaypoh

I agree with John Warren. Our lab microscopes are clunky but they have to be clunky, to hold specimens firmly for observation. So this product too is clunky, which is good. But why carry a clunky microscope with your phone? I guess it is to make use of the phone's camera, and reduce product cost. Completely acceptable. But it means carrying a microscope with the phone.

But John's comment is to make a data link with a microscope so you can view as you carry the phone; this means putting a camera in the microscope (may even be an old smartphone recycling project) and this adds to the cost and complexity. Molecular biologists normally do not want to look at code, too.  But this would make it much more handy. And children will find it easier with these "Mummy let me show you the germs on my fingers" moments.

Let me tell you about another cheap product. Every tried to clean out your ear wax? Well, there are ear picks. But you can't see in the dark of your ear, so someone made an illuminated ear pick complete with three A76 button cells. But you can't use it because you can't carry your eyes to your ears. Would be nice to have a camera and data link, but this is a 99 cent product! Still works, if you have someone to pick your ears for you.



John Warren
John Warren

Seems like it would be more feasible to add a video input port to newly manufactured phones then attach via a USB to "whatever" port a $30 USB microscope. Good idea though.

bratwizard
bratwizard

Out of curiosity, what is "decomratize". 

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

Science is how you think -- how you go about asking and answering questions -- good questions. A clever microscope attachment is not likely to do much to promote "science".

I know what teenagers will use it for -- but I can't say it in a public place.

andrewbadera
andrewbadera

You people need to learn to edit before you drop horribly misspelled words into my inbox. Unsubscribed.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

Decomratize? That's the idea!

Gotta keep them Commies outta teachin' science. Heyll, they'll get the kiddies believin' in evo-lution!

catalystframe
catalystframe

@kaypoh Well... it doesn't need to be that clunky in order to hold the specimen firmly (flat surface plus clip and a wide base would work). And this microscope is around the same size as a laptop mouse. Also I'm not sure if there's a misunderstanding, but you don't have to carry the microscope around attached to the phone. It's easier to carry them separately, and reattach them as necessary. It uses a very strong restickable adhesive.

But I do agree that adding in the camera into the microscope would be nice though, thus avoiding having to mount anything. It's something I thought of as well, but electronics design and manufacture is Extremely expensive. I might grant your wish on a later date though!

Hmmm..... actually that earpick might have been for beauty salons. Sometimes they offer ear-cleaning services. I just do it myself though =)

catalystframe
catalystframe

We are totally working on that! Thank you so much for the encouragement!

catalystframe
catalystframe

Thanks! The issue with USB microscopes is that they're way bigger and none of them have anywhere near the amount of power that's offered in this microscope (up to ~1500x with an 8megapixel camera). In fact, some of them (at least on Amazon) outright lie about what the power their microscope is really capable of. Also a cheap $30 usb microscope camera tend to take low-quality low resolution photos, whereas most smartphone/tablet cameras are pretty nice. So USB microscopes might be okay, but there are drawbacks involved.

Also phones just don't really have video inputs (not straightforward ones at least). Maybe I could create a converter, but that requires electronics design and I'm pretty sure I would need to get that apple-certified, which is all-in-all super expensive! In the end, this is the lowest-cost universal solution without having to wait for phone manufactures, which will be an Extremely long wait. Hahaha

catalystframe
catalystframe

@GrizzledGeezer I've taught in underprivileged schools and as a tutor for children from all walks of life, and it doesn't matter that science is about asking good questions, if kids don't care about science to begin with.


A tool like this enables hands-on science and will give kids the curiosity to make them ask "What's this?" Providing the motivation to learn is the most critical aspect of good education, because in the end there's no way to force-fed it to them.

ulleryg
ulleryg

@andrewbadera ~ wat u sayin? ...it is interesting that this is apparently the frustrating results of social media dogma :-)

catalystframe
catalystframe

@GrizzledGeezer @catalystframe Actually it can be higher: 

"Using the mathematical equations given above and the values for maximum numerical aperture attainable with the lenses of a light microscope it can be shown that the maximum useful magnification on a light microscope is between 1000X and 1500X."

Source: http://www.auburn.edu/academic/classes/zy/hist0509/html/02basmic.html

"Optical microscopes are quoted as having a maximum magnification of 1500x to 2000x"

Source: http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/38146/optical-microscope-magnification-limits

catalystframe
catalystframe

@jamdavid @catalystframe @GrizzledGeezer  Hi! Not a problem for this microscope! These images were taken without having to use immersion oil, but actually also isn't designed for use with immersion oil either. Immersion oil helps improve the resolution of the microscope, which becomes important at high magnification, but also requires a specific lens setup that's more expensive and complicated that we decided not to use.

Thanks for asking!

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