How To Create A Digital Microscope For Under $10

I’ve always been a little frustrated with macro photography. Rather than spend a lot of money on macro lenses, I’ve often tested the minimum focus range of cameras to see how close I could get to a subject. A few weeks ago, I heard about a simple way to create a digital microscope from a cheap webcam, so I gave it a shot and the results were surprising. Here’s the camera I started with.

webcam

This is not a great webcam. I bought it for around $10 and have since determined that I don’t much like or need it, so it was sitting in a box with my other orphaned gadgets. You can get one on ebay for $7 now. With this camera, I had to unscrew the lens from the housing and then actually clip off the focus ring edge with wire snips. It screws on, but then I think they glued it. Yeah. $7. Anyway, it’s a decent camera for the job and is otherwise easy to take apart.

How To Create A Digital Microscope

This is really much easier than it sounds. While the instructions below are specific to this webcam, you can apply the theory to many other webcams: Open it up, flip the lens around to be backwards, close it up.

1. Take apart the webcam. (5 screws)
2. Remove the camera board from the housing. (2 screws)
3. Remove the lens housing from the board. (Be careful not to touch the tiny CMOS sensor) (2 screws)
4. Unscrew the lens from the mount.
5. Using wire snips, very carefully remove the black focus ring edge if it won’t unscrew on its own.
6. Screw the lens back into the mount backwards.
7. Re-assemble everything.

Sample Photos And Uses

Personally, I wanted to do this mostly to film small insects like ants and tiny spiders. Using a webcam adds the benefit of having both photo and video capabilities. If you have kids, this is a great way to provide them with a digital microscope and get them more excited about science. Below are some examples I came up with in the hour since I’ve completed the conversion.

A human hair
hair

The head of a pin
pinhead

Pixels on my monitor
pixels

The head of a small screw
screw

Enjoy and post your success stories and links to photos below.

Live Streaming from the Car on My Way to Work

I’ve always been interested in photography and video, and more importantly, capturing either digitally. When I had a web cam way way back, I thought a couple times of how I might set up a computer with some kind of connection to broadcast wirelessly. I thought it would be cool to have a setup where I could reach out to the internet while I was driving. This, was long before we could browse the web or send Twitter or Facebook updates from our phones and I never thought a cell phone would be the bearer of this deliciously geeky fruit.

The other night, I skimmed a blog post that mentioned Ustream.tv‘s iPhone application for streaming directly to your Ustream account from an iPhone. Finally, I would be able to broadcast video (boring as it may be) directly from my car to a place where people could watch it live. One of my geek dreams had now surfaced, waiting for me to dive in.

Morning attempt
This morning, I decided to give it a shot. I got up early, did a test run of the software, tweeted to invite everyone to watch, and hit the road. While on driving, I talked about the technology used to get video from here to there and the Mophie Juice Pack that helped me stay powered up. But I ran into a couple problems. While the video and audio was reportedly great quality, the 3G signal just couldn’t handle video and audio streaming from my house to my office. I was told that it would cut out for up to two minutes at a time. I also neglected to realize that I needed to hit the “Record” button after hitting the “Broadcast” button if I wanted a copy of the video saved to my Ustream account. When I got to the office, I realized this and decided immediately that I would have to give it another try.

Evening attempt
A little after 5:00, I left the office. It was early for me, but I wanted to try this with some daylight. This time, I hit “Broadcast” and then “Record” and began driving home. Once again, I encountered issues with connection loss for a minute or two at a time. It seemed that it was longer when I wasn’t moving, so I may have been just hitting 3G-less pockets. I also came across a couple of things someone might actually be interested in seeing live. The first was what looked like a fire, but ended up not being one at all and the second was someone getting pulled over by two police cars. Had either been newsworthy, it would have not only been a little exciting to live stream it, but it would have been a great proof of concept for field reporting from an iPhone. Unfortunately, Ustream didn’t get all the video I shot, but here’s the last few minutes or so:

Some lessons learned
First of all, I’ve learned of an immediate real-world use for the Mophie Juice Pack that I hadn’t thought of before which is, of course, sustaining power for video casting on the go. It was sent to me for a review, so I’ll leave it at that until I get more hands-on with it and post a real review. Secondly, I learned that I’ll need to really figure out the angle for my iPhone to record myself or I’ll have to mount it. As you can see in the video, I only got the top half of my head most of the time. Finally, and probably most importantly, I realized that no matter what I do, my stream will only be as good as my ability to transmit it. While I’m impressed that I could stream as much as I did at the end, I really wanted to have a flawless and uninterrupted stream, but my 3G hiccups prevented it. There are devices out there to boost your reception, so if you’re thinking about some serious remote streaming and have some extra cash, that might be a good way to go. For me, I’ll dabble and perhaps do more streaming remotely but stationary and close to a solid connection.