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An iPhone Microscope

November 8, 2009


Imagine this: You’re exploring the salt ponds of San Francisco, and notice the water isn’t clear — it’s red! You dip a piece of plastic into the water to get a sample and notice lots of small little particles in the droplets.

Then you pull out your iPhone, magnify the sample 100 x and snag a photo. Doesn’t look like anything familiar but…

Maybe #diybio on Twitter would know?

“#diybio, I’m at the salt flats outside San Francisco. Any idea if I’m looking at something like red tide, or is this just algae?” – DIYbioGuy, N 37o 50′ 55.5” – W 121o 55′ 53.0”

Fellow citizen scientists take interest…

“@DIYbioGuy — Those algae look active, and wow look at
the chambers on that Foraminifera! It looks like it may be ornamenting itself. #diybio” – wreinhardt

Make this happen — a portable, web-enabled 100x microscope that plugs into an iPhone. The purpose of this article is to document my attempt. To be sure, I had an idea and I tried it out. I did not refine the idea or do very much planning. In place of refining the idea, I used lots of tape. I also didn’t get very far.


Cellscope demo at Critter Salon (SF)

Inspiration: A few weeks ago at the CRITTER Salon in downtown San Francisco, I talked with Amy from UC Berkley about a project called “CellScope“.  Their mission — diagnosing diseases in remote areas by hooking a simple microscope up to a cell phone. Snag an image, and send it off to some professions for diagnosis of sickle cell and TB, and other diseases.

I love the idea, I dislike squinting into microscopes (and maybe you do to?). Though I won’t be diagnosing diseases, a portable, web-enabled microscope would be very useful. Extending this project to connect to an iPhone seemed like the obvious choice, so I gave it a shot.

Day 1 – I bought a RadioShack pocket scope tonight. Lining up the microscope with my iPhone while trying to focus was a disaster. I needed to mount the microscope to something flat.

Using the packaging, a whole bunch of tape, and a butter knife for stability, I mounted the microscope to the cardboard. Then I got the microscope to line up with my iPhone’s camera – and snagged this picture of a quarter. It’s pretty tedious to get the scope aligned with the camera, so I called it a night after nabbing a cool picture of the threads from the green Foo Camp shirt I was wearing.

A close up look at my tshirt

My t-shirt through the Radioshack pocket scope + iPhone

Day 2 – When I returned home after work, I was inspired to make a more permanent mount that wouldn’t go out of alignment as easy. I had a package of moldable plastic beads lying around from Maker Fair. The beads melt in boiling water, forming a big malleable blob. You mold the blob to whatever shape you desire and when it cools, it’s hard plastic. This stuff was great, and you can re-heat and reform it too. After my first attempt at molding a mount, I discovered the problem wasn’t just the mounting. The precise alignment needed between the scope and the phone was too much, I estimate about 1/16″ difference would cause the image on the microscope to move outside of the iPhone’s sight.

Stabilizing the pocket scope

Stabilizing the pocket scope

Over the next few days, I attempted to enlarge  the image using eyeglasses from a Dollar store, and other types of magnifying lenses, none of which helped. At this point, I had a good understanding for the challenges ahead. I wrote Amy back to see what a copy of the Cellscope would cost, but the parts she suggested were about $300. I decided to let the project settle and moved on to something else. Then I met the Hackteria team…

Turning a $20 webcam into a 200x USB microscope

At the DIYbio + iGEM meeting last week at MIT, a team from Hackteria (Bangalore) showed us how it’s done. Mac brought a $20 USB webcam to the meeting for us to hack. Basically just unscrew the case, flip the little lens around, and there you have it, a 200x USB microscope. Of course, focusing is still a manual process and somewhat tricky.
Above: A video from Hackteria’s USB webcam project

Summary: Overall, I went through a lot of crummy ideas to get to some ok ones. Many of my best “discoveries” were simply stumbling upon the great work of others, like the Cellscope and Hackteria! Turning a USB webcam into a microscope is great for innovation in low cost labs. The next step is mobility – hooking one of these up to an iPhone, either through the USB port or just relying on the built in camera. Check out the Hackteria blogpost, here.

Challenges: A portable iPhone microscope

1. Low cost magnification  — solved

  • USB webcam or Manual pocket scope

2. Digitizing and recording images — getting there

  • Standard desktop software for USB webcam
  • unknown for pocketscope + iPhone

3. Connecting a USB webcam to an iPhone  — ??

4. Obtaining and positioning the sample — ??

  • This is the most challenging part of the project. How would you use an iPhone microscope? Do you want to keep it in your pocket? If you want to look at a leaf, how do you hold the scope + sample so that they stay in focus? Do you need to keep slides with you as well, in order to quickly mount your sample?

After reading this, you might get the initiative to try building something of your own. Go for it! Fail fast. Fail frequently!

I’ve started a discussion in the DIYbio Forums, and would love to hear about your thoughts, ideas, and progress!

— Tito Jankowski is a founder of Pearl Biotech. His interests include building better hardware for biology.

Sources —
Hackteria: DIY USB microscope
Instructables: 30 minute USB microscope
Critter Salon


Post a comment
  1. November 8, 2009

    great idea with the i-phone. it shouldnt be too difficult. we have done some experimentation on the hackteria wiki about how to transform a ultra cheap digi-cam into a microscope, works perfect:
    sorry the docu is still missing abit.

    i have already been thinking to what extent the diy microscopes could be used in developing countries. and then when the cellscope got published was i was a bit confused about their approach in first of all using proper microscope objectives, ok their cheap and kinda accessible. but then if you have an objective, it usually comes with the microscope around it. and secondly, that the project is really sponsored by the big companies and they have even patented parts of it. kinda seems difficult to help the developing world by patenting…

  2. Sena #
    November 10, 2009

    This sounds like a great idea but I think the iphone is probably not the best phone to use especially if you want to develop a software for the phone. From a developer’s perspective, perhaps a Droid phone might be more useful and it has a more powerful processer. Also, the accessibility to use the Droid on any computer is easier and doesn’t require certain software that the iphone does.

    • tito #
      November 11, 2009

      Hmm, Droid is a good suggestion, it’s probably much more hackable than the iPhone.


  3. November 18, 2009

    Great idea! I’ve just completed a similar webcam microscope hack with good results. You can see my write-up on my site. Maybe my ultra-simple solution will give you an idea re specimen position / focusing.

    • tito #
      November 19, 2009

      VERY simple, and I imagine very sensitive. I love it!

      Any thoughts on making a more mobile tool?


  4. January 25, 2010

    I love the scope attachment you built for your phone! It looks like it was a blast to make. It turns out that if you can look through a microscope with your eye and focus, then the iPhone can focus too. Therefore, you can separate the problem of stabilizing the sample from the iPhone. First to adjust the sample to focus using your eyes, then you place the iPhone in position until it is focussed.

    I use microscopes every day in the lab, and one of the problems I run into is that many of them don’t have micrograph equipment, or I’d have to boot a computer and hook up to the network, etc to get my images off. I longed for an iPhone program. So I made one. I just released it and it is called iMicroscope. I’ll give links below.

    I found that the most important factors in holding the camera steady are holding it stiffly as this causes your muscles to shake less (not too stiff) and touch the microscope or another solid stationary object with several points on your hand. Once you’ve got the full view in focus you can snap your shot. You actually don’t have to wait for the image to become perfect — it can flicker or do whatever on the iPhone because it is in fast frame mode in order to produce video. As soon as you snap the shot, it changes the settings on the CCD and obtains a nice clear image.

    So if you’re using iMicroscope I think you would be able to get away with using a mobile standalone scope.

    App store:
    A tips page I wrote with more detail:
    A YouTube video showing how:



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