Smart phones are the most iconic piece of technology of the modern age. They combine processors much faster than those that put a man on the moon, with colour touchscreens and high resolution digital imaging sensors. They can wirelessly send data to anywhere in the world and are ubiquitous; approximately 1 in 3 people worldwide own a cell-phone. Smart phones are changing the world, but still the potential of their technology is relatively untapped.
In 2012 I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, volunteering in the Cell Biomechanics Lab. My advisor, Professor Nathan Sniadecki, suggested using cell phones as a platform for microscopy. Microscopes are a fundamental tool of science. They are used for education, medicine and research in almost every field. Using the phone’s digital imaging sensor, paired with external optics and mounting, it is possible to create a digital, internet-connected microscope. This is both more affordable and more easily transported than traditional devices.
The idea of mobile microscopy was demonstrated as early as 2009. The concept of ‘telemedicine’, using technology to provide remote healthcare, is even older. However, all implementations had, up until now, been bulky, expensive to produce, and unlikely to reach consumers for many years. The bulk and cost together negated the advantages of using cell phones as a platform for microscopy. With that in mind, I set out to create a unique device. The finished product had to be simple, affordable, compact, and accessible.
My initial researched quickly led me to the ‘Van Leeuwenhoek’ microscope. This is a very early design with a single lens, requiring both the specimen and observer to be in close proximity. This style allows for a very compact and cost effective microscope. While the image quality is not as good as more complex multi-lens systems, I found it is good enough to create the device.
The Micro Phone Lens is a self-adhesive, silicone, plano-convex lens. This means the lens is flat on one side, but convex on the other, as if a sphere has been cut in half. The lens sticks to the cell phone’s camera using van der Waals’ forces; weak forces of attraction that exist between all atoms and molecules. They are the same forces that geckos use to ‘stick’ to walls and ceilings.
To fund the manufacture of the device, I set up a crowdfunding site via Kickstarter. Over 5000 people from around the world helped make the 15x magnification lens a reality. Later campaigns allowed me to expand the range from 4x to 150x magnification.
My microscopes are now being used by tens of thousands of people around the world. They are used in schools, in industry, and by researchers and scientists. One of the great joys of this project is working with users; I’ve gone from helping to detect counterfeit paintings in the morning, to diagnosing cervical cancer after lunch, to answering questions at afternoon science clubs.
My primary goal has always been to make microscopy affordable and accessible to everyone in the world. To this end, I hope to keep improving my inventions, especially in regards to global health applications. I have more products in the pipeline that should keep this project exciting for years to come.