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$10 Smartphone to digital microscope conversion!

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The world is an interesting place, but it's fascinating up close.  Through the lens of a microscope you can find details that you would otherwise never notice.  But now you can.

This instructable will show you how to build a stand for about $10 that will transform your smartphone into a powerful digital microscope. This DIY conversion stand is more than capable of functioning in an actual laboratory setting. With magnification levels as high as 175x 375x Edit:  with the addition of a second lens magnification can be as high as 375x, plant cells and their nuclei are easily observed!  In addition to allowing the observation of cells, this setup also produces stunning macro photography.

The photos in this instructable were taken with an iPhone 4S.  

Watch the video below for a quick overview of the project!
 
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Step 1: Materials and Tools

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The cost of this project is just $10 (not counting the smartphone), and it only takes about 20 minutes to build. You can be viewing cells with your smartphone within the hour!

Materials required:
3x 4 ½” x 5/16” carriage bolts
9x 5/16” nuts
3x 5/16” wing nuts
5x 5/16” washers
¾” x 7” x 7” plywood  -- for the base
⅛” x 7” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the camera stage
⅛” x 3” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the specimen stage
Scrap plexi (~ 2"x 4") for specimen slide (optional but useful)
laser pointer focus lens (use two for increased magnification)
LED click light (necessary only for viewing backlit specimens)

Tools:
Drill
Assorted bits
Ruler

LINKS TO LENSES AND LIGHTS

Lights: http://www.amazon.com/FTmall-Pocket-Portable-Keychain-Flashlight/dp/B008O2KKYW/ref=lh_ni_t?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2B8SF4TS2YZYV
Lenses: If you don't have a laser, these lenses have produced comparable results:  http://www.aixiz.com/store/product_info.php/cPath/46/products_id/374/osCsid/37cabc139b4f03b0e0a522178defae7e

Step 2: Getting the lens from a laser pointer

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The focus lens of just about any laser pointer will act as the macro lens on the microscope stand.  Don't waste money on an expensive model; the lens from the $2 laser is fine.  EDIT: To achieve higher magnification (up to 375x), use a second lens!  

To get the lens from the laser pointer start by unscrewing the front cone and the back cover of the tube.  Remove the batteries.  Using the eraser end of a pencil, push the innards out of the front of the tube.  The front of this assembly (the side without the spring to contact the batteries) is where the focus lens sits.  Unscrew the small black piece of plastic in front of the lens and the lens will come free.

Step 3: A few notes on the lens...

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The lens, when viewed from the side is not symmetrical. You’ll see a thin translucent strip (~1mm) on one side of the lens.  That side must not be adjacent to the camera.  You can determine the correct orientation by sticking the lens between the prongs of a hairpin and taping the rig to the back of a smartphone.  The correct orientation will provide you with a larger field of view.

As it is, you can take reasonably good macro photos with this lens and smartphone. This simple rig is limited; not to mention, it’s extremely hard to keep the phone steady when taking zoomed in photos. That’s why we need to build a stand!

Step 4: Drilling the bolt holes

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Make a mark with a Sharpie on the front two corners of the plywood base ¾” from both the sides and the front edges.
Put a sacrificial piece of wood beneath the plywood base before drilling.  You don’t want to damage surface of the bench! Stack the plexiglass camera stage (7” x 7” piece) on top of the base.  Then stack the specimen stage (3” x 7”) on top of the camera stage with ¾” of the stage extending off the front of the base. 
Drill through the entire assembly.   The bolts that stick up through the base must be countersunk in order for the stand to sit flat.  Flip the base over and counter sink the holes with a spade bit.

EDIT: A few tips on NOT cracking the plexiglass when drilling…First, go slow.  Let the drill do the work and DO NOT press down hard on the drill.  Use a sharp bit and press gently on the drill.  You can also put a piece of tape over the area that you wish to drill through.  It will reduce the chance of cracking the plexi.

Step 5: Embedding the lens

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Find a drill bit that is the same size as or smaller than the diameter of the lens. Remember, you can always take more plexi away; adding extra plexiglass after drilling is not an option.

¾” from the front of the camera stage (in line with the bolt holes) drill a hole for the lens. 

If the lens doesn’t quite fit, file or use sandpaper to enlarge the hole.  Be sure to do this slowly and test the fit often.  It is easy to overshoot and make the hole too large! 

When using the stand, it is important to have the lens as close as possible to the camera.  If you don’t plan on having your phone in a case when you use the stand, make the lens flush with the stage.  Otherwise, leave the top of the lens slightly exposed (as is done in the image) so that the lens will rest closer to the camera.

EDIT: If you are using TWO lenses, stack them on top of another.  Insert one lens from below the plexiglass and the second from above.  

Step 6: Drilling the hole for the light source

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It is important that a hole for your light source is directly below the focus lens.  The best way to mark the placement of the light is to slide the camera stage (without the lens) down to the base, mark with a pencil where the hole is to be drilled, and drill a shallow hole to rest the light in.

Step 7: Assembly

We are ready to assemble!  Start with washers and nuts to hold the bolts tight to the base.  Then add some upside down wing nuts and then washers to the two front bolts.  Place the specimen stage on top of the washers and add a nut to each bolt. Lower them about 1/2” and rest the camera stage on top of these nuts.  A level is handy here to make sure that the stage is actually flat.  If you don’t own a level there are plenty of free level apps for a phone!  When the stage is level both front to back and left to right, tighten down the final nuts.

Step 8: Explore!

Go take some pictures! Or video! With $10 worth of materials and a smartphone, you just made a digital microscope!

Plant cells tend to work best for this particular model, but feel free to experiment. That’s what this is all about, giving you the freedom to explore.



I am a major proponent of making home science more accessible.  My goal in designing and building this phone to microscope conversion stand is to provide an alternative to overly expensive microscopes. This set up is a viable option for underfunded science classrooms that would not otherwise be able to perform experiments requiring a microscope.  But more than that, this device will allow people to rediscover the world around them.

Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions regarding this project!



Special thanks to:

The folks at Grin City Collective for all their creative guidance and support.

Luke Saunders for videography

Step 9: Troubleshooting!

Troubleshooting:

As you have questions I will do my best to address them in this section!

Lens won't focus!
I have heard a lot of folks responding and saying that they are having trouble getting the lens to focus on the object.
This is most likely because the object is not close enough to the lens.  If you still can't focus on the image and the nuts under the camera stage stop the specimen stage from being raised higher use a scrap piece of plexi as a slide.  This will raise the object into focus.  

Cracked plexiglass!
I touched on this briefly earlier in the instructable.  The big thing here is GO SLOW.  Let the weight of the drill do the work and DON'T PRESS HARD.  Use as sharp a bit as possible.  Taping over the area you need to drill also reduces the chance of cracking.

I don't have the tools to make the cuts!
Not to worry!  Most hardware stores have a shop and will charge a small fee for cutting the wood and the plexiglass down to size.  

Help!  I can only buy plexiglass in huge sheets!
Many hardware stores will have scraps.  I purchased a large piece of scrap to make 8 microscopes for a fraction of the price of a full sheet.

Aaaaaaah! I can't find the same LED light!
Pretty much any LED light will work.  Ideally it can stand up straight with the light pointing vertically.  If your light is tall, it might raise the minimum height that your specimen stage can be.  This of course can easily be fixed by using longer bolts.  
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Yoshinok (author) 1 year ago
The LED light that is used in this instructable:

Diamond Visions Inc 08-0775 Crazy Colored Stubby Keychain Led Flashlight
bbtinker Yoshinok6 months ago

You can get the led light at Dealextreme too.

I understand that you can use others as well?

Love the simplicity of this and will definitely be taking inspiration. One question: how have you worked out the level of magnification you are getting?
Yoshinok (author)  Dean Wilson1 year ago
The magnification was determined by using calibration micrometer slides and comparing the images obtained by this apparatus to the images from a digital microscope of known magnification.
tmichlovitch made it!16 days ago

My 9 year old daughter and I made this. We had a lot of fun putting it together. I cut the wood and the plexyglass and she helped me assemble it. We covered the wood with some black pressure sensitive vinyl type material so that it would look better. The close up shot is a picture of the letter A taken from a quarter.

Thanks, we had fun!

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Hi. Looking great. I see you also made the same modification as I did by adding extra bolts to the adjustable table to keep it more steady. One hint, try to get the laser inside an old CD,DVD player, burner etc... It is alot bigger and works much better than the laser from a laser pointer.

Thanks for the hint, I will try that out.

is plexiglass do anything with magnification
AlexM344 days ago

Do you know any teachers who have made use of this in classrooms? If so I would love to feature them in an article I'm writing now about accessible innovation - alexannem [at] gmail [dot] com

Any helpful tips on getting the lens out of the black housing from the lenses bought in bulk? l bought the ones listed, totally scratched one up trying to get it out. Ideas? Anyone know what size drill bit works best for the suggested lenses?
Any helpful tips on getting the lens out of the black housing from the lenses bought in bulk? l bought the ones listed, totally scratched one up trying to get it out. Ideas? Anyone know what size drill bit works best for the suggested lenses?
In the parts list it calls for 3 5/16 wing nuts... only shows two in the break down. Typo or am I missing something?
navaneethm11 days ago

I cant get the magnification you've achieved. I estimate my magnification around 10X. What could be causing this?

Have you tried the same setup with different phones? What were the results?

I used to have a laser pointer when I was a kid, but threw it our at one point. Can you tell me where I can buy just a focus lens?

Hi Christian. I build this microscope using the lens from an old DVD writer. You can find these lenses in any sort of dvd, cd, blue ray etc.. players. The lens is used to change the focal point of the laser. I would rather suggest using such a laser becaue it is alot bigger so you can get better clearer pictures.

Thanks. I have an old portable cd player which I will now make good use of :) I was keeping it for memories, but this is a much better idea.

This was my attempt making this microscope. Some modifications i made was making the adjustable table bigger so that it is more stabe. I also tried a lens from an old dvd writer which is alot bigger than a laser pointer lens. The laser pointer lens seems to give more amplification but the dvd writer lens is more clearer as you can see in my pictures.

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The pictures of the grass leaf was taken with X 1 zoom on the smartphone camera. With the laser pointer lens you need to get alot closer to the camera to get it in focus than the dvd writer lens.

Thanks for this idea. I build it a couple of days ago but instead of using the lens from a laser I used the lens from a computer DVD writer. Its alot bigger than the one in a laser pointer.

MelissaP217 days ago

One of the very best instructables I've ever seen! I love that this is inexpensive and portable enough to make it useful for teachers, too!

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http://www.roboticspedia.com

http://www.roboticspedia.com

http://roboticspedia.com

I also improved the stabilization with two pieces
of aluminum tubing.
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I built one! Then I showed it to my science teacher and she told me I should upgrade it. So I did. I used lenses out of a real microscope and created an even focusing system with lego hubs and a belt. Thank you for this great intractable. I had a blast!
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TofuTigerr29 days ago

The lens just makes things blurry for me, and I'm using the exact same laser pointer as you have in the picture!

Ok, i got it fixed now, it was just I couldn't get the objects close enough. How did you get the stage stabilized? In order for the stage to move smoothly, I had to make the holes bigger, but now it's wobbly. Also, I can't get the magnification you have even with 2 lenses.

my4pop129 days ago

Very nice liked. I hope you the further development.

They're right when they say, the best things are simple. Thanks for the share.

JeffreyB21 month ago
i will make this but add stuff like nob adjustments and stuff like that
liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

liu.rijing1 month ago

Hi I bought the lenses from the link you
provided and when I attached the len to the camera phone, the field of view is
very narrow, do I have to take out the black rubber piece surrounding the len.
If need to, how to do so?

Thank
you very much for your advice. Very much appreciated

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