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Your iPhone Camera Can Work As A Microscope

A new smartphone accessory could democratize scientific research on an unprecedented scale.

Your iPhone Camera Can Work As A Microscope
[Image: Flickr user Nic McPhee]

A small startup in the Bay Area is working on a development which could revolutionize scientific research: Cheap, smartphone-based microscope systems which leverage the phone’s camera to magnify up to 1500 times.

The Catalyst Frame project, currently on Kickstarter, may not be the first attempt at making a smartphone microscope, but it’s definitely among the most ambitious. Creator Jing Luo says the microscope is intended not just for hobbyists, but for field scientists–a major selling point is that it prevents contamination because the Catalyst Frame is designed not to touch samples.

According to the product’s Kickstarter, the Catalyst Frame microscope is a “simple, full- featured portable microscope that works with your smartphone/tablet with powerful 30/50/170 or 30/170/340 magnification.” The small add-on accessory is about the size of two cigarette lighters and requires two AAA batteries to operate.

“By itself, the Catalyst Frame microscope can magnify an object up to 340 times; using an 8 megapixel iPhone or Android camera, it can combine with the digital magnification to provide up to ~1500x. It’s because we have such a high level of power, this can be used for example to diagnose whether someone has sickle cell anemia or not. And if we only had 340x, that would be no where near enough, we would just be looking at dots,” said Luo.

Catalyst Frame is part of a larger microindustry (sorry) of companies producing microscopes that leverage smartphones’ tech backends. Other products on the market or soon to be on the market include Micro Phone Lens 150x, MicrobeScope, and MicroMax Plus. Most of these max out at 150x resolution and are aimed primarily at hobbyists and photographers; one exception is the SkyLight, a microscope adapter aimed primarily at health care providers offering telemedicine services.

Luo got the idea to build the device from a friend who is a wildlife immunologist and complained about the poor quality of field microscopes. Familiar with the common use of machine learning algorithms in modern microscopes from his background studying molecular cell biology and bioinformatics at the University of California Berkeley and UC-Davis, he then turned to Kickstarter to build his project.

As of press time, Luo has raised over $20,000 on Kickstarter. “With this tool, one could follow a rare toxic species of bacteria as it zips across the slide, identify an insect under higher magnification, then classify rock samples. My goal is to build a platform,” he added. The biggest challenge for Catalyst Frame right now is design: Luo, who is self-taught like many other Kickstarter inventors, is trying to figure out ways to integrate feedback from Kickstarter backers who want a lay-on table design. Prototypes are currently being built for the microscope, which will then enter production.

Because smartphones are getting more and more powerful, there are increasing opportunities for enterprising inventors to build powerful accessories which leverage the computer technology at the heart of iPhone and Android devices. If this means field scientists can benefit from inexpensive, high-quality microscopes, that’s all the better.