Lens turns any smartphone into a portable microscope

Thomas Larson A magnified image is displayed on an iPad screen.

The lens he developed is now as powerful as the research microscopes used in the lab

Imagine yourself examining species of coral in Fiji. Looking at fungi and parasites in grass seeds. Following ants across the ground up close, or picking out the striations in a piece of roast beef on rye.

People around the world are doing all this and more with a tiny, durable magnification lens built by an enterprising University of Washington undergraduate student.

The Micro Phone Lens, developed by UW mechanical engineering alumnus Thomas Larson (’13), can turn any smartphone or tablet computer into a hand-held microscope. The soft, pliable lens sticks to a device’s camera without any adhesive or glue and makes it possible to see things magnified dozens of times on the screen.

“A microscope is a tool you can do thousands of different things with and by making it cheaper, portable and able to take pictures, you open so many different possibilities that weren’t available before,” Larson said.

Larson completed his undergraduate degree in 2013 and formed his own company based in Olympia, Wash. After the initial success this winter of his first model that magnifies by 15 times, he is creating a new lens that will magnify up to 150 times. (Standard laboratory microscopes usually magnify between 50 and 400 times.)

The lens is about the size of a button and comes in its own carrying case. Users stick it flat onto a smartphone camera lens, turn on an external light source such as a lamp, then run the device in camera mode. Moving the device closer or farther from the object brings it into focus.

Several other products exist that can adapt a smartphone to be used as a microscope, but they are significantly more expensive, and the attachments are heavy or require permanent adhesives.

Larson developed his smartphone lens while working in the lab of Nathan Sniadecki, a UW associate professor of mechanical engineering. The lab needed a miniaturized lens that could work with a cellphone as a microscope, and Larson took on the project. The lens he developed is now as powerful as the research microscopes used in the lab, Sniadecki said.

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Diagnosing diseases with smartphones

LEFT: The system being developed by UH Cullen College of Engineering researchers diagnoses disease by blocking holes with pathogens and some other connected material, in this case silver particles, preventing light from shining through. RIGHT: This is a close-up of nanoholes blocked by these particles. Credit: Jiming Bao Research Group

Researchers at UH are developing a system to use smartphones to diagnose diseases in real time

Smartphones are capable of giving us directions when we’re lost, sending photos and videos to our friends in mere seconds, and even helping us find the best burger joint in a three-mile radius. But University of Houston researchers are using smartphones for another very important function: diagnosing diseases in real time.

The researchers are developing a disease diagnostic system that offers results that could be read using only a smartphone and a $20 lens attachment.

The system is the brainchild of Jiming Bao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Richard Willson, Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. It was created through grants from the National Institutes of Health and The Welch Foundation, and was featured in February in ACS Photonics.

This new device, like essentially all diagnostic tools, relies on specific chemical interactions that form between something that causes a disease – a virus or bacteria, for example – and a molecule that bonds with that one thing only, like a disease-fighting antibody. A bond that forms between a strep bacteria and an antibody that interacts only with strep, for instance, can support an ironclad diagnosis.

The trick is finding a way to detect these chemical interactions quickly, cheaply and easily. The solution proposed by Bao and Willson involves a simple glass slide and a thin film of gold with thousands of holes poked in it.

Creating this slide is itself an achievement. This task, led by Bao, starts with a standard slide covered in a light-sensitive material known as a photoresist. He next uses a laser to create a series of interference fringes – basically lines – on the slide, and then rotates it 90 degrees and creates another series of interference fringes. The intersections of these two sets of lines creates a fishnet pattern of UV exposure on the photoresist. The photoresist is then developed and washed away.

While most of the slide is then cleared, the spots surrounded by intersecting laser lines – the ‘holes’ in the fishnet – remain covered, basically forming pillars of photoresist.

Next, he exposes the slide to evaporated gold, which attaches to photoresist and the surrounding clean glass surface. Bao then performs a procedure called lift-off, which essentially washes away the photoresist pillars and the gold film attached to them.

The end result is a glass slide covered by a film of gold with ordered rows and columns of transparent holes where light can pass through.

These holes, measuring about 600 nanometers each, are key to the system. Willson and Bao’s device diagnoses an illness by blocking the light with a disease-antibody bond – plus a few additional ingredients.

Here is where Willson comes in. An internationally known biomolecular engineer, Willson starts by placing disease antibodies in the holes, where they are coaxed into sticking to the glass surface. Next, he flows a biological sample over the slide. If the sample contains the bacteria or virus being sought out, it will bond with the antibody in the hole.

This bond alone, though, doesn’t block the light. “The thing that binds to the antibody is probably not big and grey enough to darken this hole, so you have to find a way to darken it up somehow,” Willson said.

Willson achieves this by flowing a second round of antibodies that bond with the bacteria over the slide. Attached to these antibodies are enzymes that produce silver particles when exposed to certain chemicals. With this second set of antibodies now attached to any bacteria in the holes, Willson then exposes the entire system to the chemicals that encourage silver production.

About 15 minutes later he rinses off the slide. Thanks to chemical properties of the gold, the silver particles in the holes will remain in place, completely blocking light.

Here’s where the smart phone comes in. One of the advantages of this system is that the results can be read with simple tools. A basic microscope used in elementary school classrooms, Willson said, provides enough light and magnification to show whether the holes are blocked. With a few small tweaks, a similar reading could almost certainly be made with a phone’s camera, flash and an attachable lens.

This system, then, promises readouts that are affordable and easy to interpret.

“Some of the more advanced diagnostic systems need $200,000 worth of instrumentation to read the results,” said Willson. “With this, you can add $20 to a phone you already have and you’re done.”

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Battery-free technology brings gesture recognition to all devices

U of Washington Beyond mobile devices, AllSee can also enable interaction with Internet of Things devices such as home monitoring solutions.

Mute the song playing on your smartphone in your pocket by flicking your index finger in the air, or pause your “This American Life” podcast with a small wave of the hand.

This kind of gesture control for electronics could soon become an alternative to touchscreens and sensing technologies that consume a lot of power and only work when users can see their smartphones and tablets.

University of Washington computer scientists have built a low-cost gesture recognition system that runs without batteries and lets users control their electronic devices hidden from sight with simple hand movements. The prototype, called “AllSee,” uses existing TV signals as both a power source and the means for detecting a user’s gesture command.

“This is the first gesture recognition system that can be implemented for less than a dollar and doesn’t require a battery,” said Shyam Gollakota, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering. “You can leverage TV signals both as a source of power and as a source of gesture recognition.”

The technology is set to appear April 2-4 at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation conference in Seattle.

The researchers built a small sensor that can be placed on an electronic device such as a smartphone. The sensor uses an ultra-low-power receiver to extract and classify gesture information from wireless transmissions around us. When a person gestures with the hand, it changes the amplitude of the wireless signals in the air. The AllSee sensors then recognize unique amplitude changes created by specific gestures.

Sensors use three to four times less power than existing gesture recognition systems by harvesting power from wireless transmissions. This allows for mobile devices to always have the gesture technology on and enabled.

Gesture recognition already is possible on some mobile devices, including the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. But users have to first manually enable the feature and be able to see the device for the gesture technology to work, and if left on, the gesture system quickly drains the phone’s battery. In contrast, AllSee consumes only tens of microwatts of power and can always be left on. The user could gesture at the phone in a pocket or handbag to change the volume or mute the phone without having to touch or see the phone.

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Philips Creates Shopping Assistant with LEDs and Smart Phone

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The company yesterday introduced a system that connects in-store LED lights with consumers’ smart phones

If you’re like me, fumbling around the supermarket looking for obscure items is a pretty common—and frustrating—occurrence. Lighting giant Philips has developed a solution: smart lights.

The company yesterday introduced a system that connects in-store LED lights with consumers’ smart phones. Using a downloadable app, people will be able to locate items on their shopping lists or get coupons as they pass products on the aisles. Retailers can send targeted information such as recipes and coupons to consumers based on their precise location within stores, while gaining benefits of energy-efficient LED lighting, says Philips.

“The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning. The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store,” said Philips Lighting‘s Gerben van der Lugt in a statement.

The company is demonstrating the retail lighting system at the EuroShop retail trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany, this week. Philips is already testing it with an undisclosed number of retailers.

The system uses Visual Light Communications (VLC) to talk with consumers’ smartphones. Unlike the wireless protocols Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee, which use radio waves to send information, VLC relies on the store lights to transmit data to the camera on a smart phone in fast pulses. The lights blink at frequencies that are undetectable by people, according to LEDs Magazine.

There are already a number of other efforts aimed at adding communications and sensors to LED light fixtures. Last year, researchers at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. demonstrated LED lights with optical communications, which they call “Li-Fi.” That setup was able to operate at gigabit-per-second speeds, according to a BBC article.

Startup ByteLight has developed a system similar to Philips’ retail lighting network. It also uses light pulses to communicate with consumers’ smart phones in stores. Other companies, such as Silver Spring Networks, in Redwood City, Calif., have developed street lights with sensors and radios that allow city managers to remotely monitor traffic density or air quality.

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Power Sleep app lets your phone perform scientific research while you sleep

Power Sleep

Power Sleep is a bridge between science and society

More and more we hear that for a good’s night sleep, we should keep our smartphones out of the bedroom, but that doesn’t mean the phones have to rest too. While you’re getting your beauty sleep, your plugged in smartphone could be helping to solve some of our greatest scientific puzzles.

A new Android app developed by Samsung Austria and researchers at the University of Vienna called Power Sleep uses your phone’s processing power to perform scientific research while you sleep. When the app’s alarm is set and your phone is plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, the app processes data sent from the Similarity Matrix of Proteins (SIMAP) database where it will decipher protein sequences in order to further medical advancements in areas like genetics and heredity, biochemistry, molecular biology and cancer research.

“In order to fight diseases like cancer and Alzheimers, we need to know how proteins are arranged,” says Thomas Rattei, professor of bioinformatics at the University of Vienna. “This requires trials that need a tremendous amount of processing power. Power Sleep is a bridge between science and society. It promotes not only our research, but allows people in Austria to become part of the project and, at the same time, to do good in their sleep.”

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