Other than computer code, the Micro Phone Lens just might be the lightest accessory you can add to your tablet or phone. Weighing in at a fraction of a gram, the tiny lens leverages the optical power of existing cameras on phones and tablets. And like a contact lens, its power is not measured in size but in performance.
Taking close-up photos and video, and I mean really close-up, pushes not only the limits of phone camera technology, but also the physics of visible light. In order to refract the light waves enough to focus on a subject that is a few millimeters from the lens, a significant amount of light-bending convex transparent material must be in the path of the light. Of course it would be easy to do that when the camera was made, but since most photos are not extreme close ups, the lens optics favor the more distant subjects. Close-up or macro photography captures details much smaller than what an unaided human eye can see. So macro can be the details on a penny, or a pinhead, or even a pinpoint.
One major difference between the Micro Phone Lenses and other clip-on accessory lenses is that the Micro Phone Lens is about the same size or even smaller than the camera lens on the device so it fits directly on the camera and is unaffected by anything surrounding the lens. Any lens accessory larger than the camera can be affected by a phone or tablet case. And worse, any space between the accessory lens and the camera lens wreaks havoc with the camera’s ability to focus, not to mention the tunneling or vignetting that separating causes.
A Kickstarter Campaign in 2013 launched the 15x Micro Phone Lens after the original two lenses, a 4x and 8x were the brainchild of the inventor Thomas Larson who dreamed up the idea while a mechanical engineering student at the University of Washington in 2012. And a second Kickstarter funded the R&D and production of a 150x lens in 2015.
In particular, the 15x and 150x are true micro lenses that easily see well below the naked human eye threshold. But that power in shaky hands will produce poor quality images. Optically, there are a set of undebatable rules that when violated produce blurry images, and when followed will allow stunning images to be captured all day long.
The rules include:
1) The higher the magnification, the thinner the depth of field (thickness of what’s in focus).
2) Higher magnification also magnifies camera movement.
3) The amount of light necessary increases with magnification.
4) The working distance between subject and camera is reduced as magnification increases.
5) Bright lighting solutions are necessary to illuminate highly magnified subjects.
6) Perfect timing between a focused image and the shutter capturing the picture is critical.
7) The picture or video must be taken when exposure is perfect and the subject is in focus. With auto-adjusting cameras, the image often constantly swings between good and bad. Luckily a near-unlimited supply of pictures can be taken minimizing the the chance you walk away with nothing useful.
The Macro Phone Lenses are made of a special scratch resistant soft plastic. While I prefer glass lenses when available, or even sapphire lenses like on the new iPhones, the other features of the Micro Phone Lenses provide many more advantages compared to the traditional designs. The adhesive properties of the soft plastic keep the little bubble stuck to the camera protecting the lens as you get close to subjects.
I was a little skeptical at first that the adhesivness would continue after plenty of fingerprints and dust got on the lens, but rarely did I need to wash off the lenses in warm water to regenerate their stickiness. However, I wouldn’t advise slipping the lensed camera into and out of a pocket. Most likely the lens will fall off, but if not, it will be covered with lint.
The images the Macro Phone Lens captures are excellent given the absolute simplicity of this product. Of course they are not as good as my Leica microscope, but at one one-hundredth the cost, and infinitely lighter and smaller, the MicroPhone Lenses leverage existing phones, tablets and even laptop computers in ways a microscope could only dream of.
The focal point of the 15x is well in front of the lens, but the 150x image requires a pressure focusing that in turn requires some precision and fine motor skill dexterity. Using a special soft and compressible outer ring the same diameter of the Micro Phone Lens, a traditional microscope slide can be placed upon lens and gently and slowly depressed until focus is achieved. It’s a simple solution to an expensive problem.
Someday I expect to see Thomas Larson, the creator of MicroPhone Lens on a TED stage for changing medicine in third world countries. By using existing and ubiquitous technology to view blood smears and cell structures, it’s possible for remote, poor, and even war-torn sites to inspect or email critical medical imagery. But in the meantime, there is a big wide world of very tiny things that fit nicely into the science curriculum. The macro viewing advantages and low cost of the Micro Phone Lens crosses all grade bands and science subjects. So for about the cost of a single traditional microscope, you could leverage phones and tablets and put microscopy in every student’s hands.