How many of us as children dreamed of becoming great explorers one day. Our imaginations propelled us in every adventure; we yearned to know what was hiding behind every corner, whether from home or at the end of the street. Our curiosity and imagination rewarded us with unforgettable moments, in the course preparing us for the great challenge called life. Observing the world and capturing its finest distinctions, ours was a continuous exploration that was repaid with intense emotions.
Today, technology gives us the tools to go even further. And that’s exactly what a group of researchers from the Department of Neuroscience at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) has done. Thanks to their research into microendoscopes, they have invented a product called Blips, a set of microscope lenses in an approximately 1 mm thickness that can be paired with a smartphone or tablet to obtain different degrees of magnification and optical resolution. The intent of the project is to allow anyone, anywhere, the possibility to observe objects undetectable to the naked eye, without the need for special skills or high-priced instruments, just by using a smartphone or tablet. Blips now opens the doors of digital microscopy to virtually everyone.
Andrea Antonini, the project creator, explains the idea behind Blips: “The idea came to me while I was working on the production of microendoscopes for applications in the field of neuroscience. I was in daily contact with microscopes and microlenses to improve the performance of commercial microendoscopy products. Some of those technologies I thought could be used with a smartphone camera or else be a starting point for the development of new portable microscopy products. The project materialized very quickly with the idea starting to take shape in March-April 2015. For a while, I worked on it during my spare time, then the IIT authorized me to devote more time specifically to the project until it became the main focus of my R&D activity. In November we won the SmartCup Liguria 2015, and in February 2016 we founded the company SmartMicroOptics as an IIT spin-off.” The path to the development of Blips is not yet complete. The company marked a turning point with a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which raised over 200,000 euros in 45 days, well exceeding its fixed goal of 15,000 euros.
But how are these lenses made and what are their features? We went into more detail with Andrea Antonini.
“Blips lenses are made of a Macro lens and a Micro lens. The Macro lens allow the user to take ultra-macro photos, observe movements of small bodies, and perform quality control of products. The Micro lens can be utilized for even higher magnification and with the right light can achieve a resolution of just a few microns. These lenses are placed on a flexible sheet of film that adheres to the glass of any mobile device via electrostatic force. Two strips with a specially engineered multiple-use adhesive are positioned at the sides of the film to ensure that it sticks to any surface without applying mechanical pressure on the Smartphone’s touch screen.” Blips represents the application of digital microscopy within the reach of everyone. That said, in its path to the market, there have been critical junctures that staff has overcome in order to see the project come to fruition.
“Portable digital microscopy already has many applications, but this often involves expensive instruments which limit its distribution. Our goal is to make this discipline accessible to all by designing instruments that people can carry along with them also thanks to their compact size. Ten or fifteen years ago we had excellent mobile phones and good portable digital cameras not always as handy as the mobile phones. Then there were mobile phones with built-in cameras that offered a low quality; now you can take a photo with a Smartphone with a quality exactly like a compact digital camera, at least almost. We think that microscopy will follow a similar path. It’s more of a niche market than the photo sector; nevertheless, there is a wide range of applications for amateurs and professionals in which integrated or almost integrated optical applications that enable observation of the micro-world can have great utility. Certainly there will be developments in the medical field (primarily dermatology, pathology and ophthalmology), agronomy, restoration, and in the quality control of manufactured products as well as science education,” explains Andrea Antonini.
If we take a moment to think about the impact that this discovery will have in terms of research and development, one of the next steps could be the evolution in the medical field to perform blood screening or carry out special analyses in pathology both quickly and inexpensively: “One very exciting aspect of this project is that it can branch into many directions. For us, it’s been incredibly satisfying that with a team of 3-4 people we’ve sold our lenses to more than 6,000 people around the world.”