Turning The iPhone Into A 350x Medical Microscope For Under $50

Using the iPhone (or any mobile smartphone or tablet device, really) for medical purposes isn’t a new thing, but it’s nice to see the applications people cook up. Just recently at Disrupt we saw Smartheart, and apps like Skin Scan are decentralizing some simple self-monitoring tasks like melanoma detection.

We’ve also seen lots of physical additions to the iPhone camera. You can get wide-angle lenses, telephotos, and even a 12x microscope lens. But a team of researchers at UC Davis has one-upped the competition by making the iPhone into a 350x microscope for very little money. Now you’ll be able to send people Instagrams of your blood cells.

It should be said right off the bat that this isn’t something that only the iPhone can do. But it’s the go-to device for proof of concept stuff like this for obvious reasons. The technique can be generalized to other devices later.

The project is actually quite a simple little hack. They use a 1mm ball lens and attach it to the outside of the iPhone lens array with a rubber sheet and some tape. The little lens technically only offers 5x magnification, but the way it focuses creates a tiny in-focus area that can resolve details down to about 1.5 microns. The field of view is very small and there’s distortion to deal with, but by combining the in-focus areas of several pictures you can get a clear enough image to identify cell types, make counts, or even take spectroscopic readings.

Take a look at these images: the ones on the top were taken with a full-on commercial medical microscope, the ones on the bottom are from the iPhone setup:

There’s obviously a major difference in quality, but the difference in price is even greater, and high-quality microscopes aren’t very mobile.

Essentially it’s one more step towards a tricorder. With a general-purpose CPU, modular inputs, and a versatile imaging unit, the smartphone is useful for far more than calling friends and playing Angry Birds. It may not be a mobile clinic, but in areas where money and electricity are hard to come by, an iPhone could be a valuable diagnostic tool. Extending the “senses” of our devices via cheap components and elbow grease could seriously empower decentralized medical care.

You can read the whole paper here. Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.