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SkyLight Adapter Connects Microscopes To Smartphones

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SkyLight co-founders Andy Miller and Tess Bakke.

The SkyLight is really a simple device derived to solve a simple problem: how to keep your smartphone still enough to take high quality photos through a microscope. Watching other people holding their cell phones up to their microscopes, SkyLight co-founder, Andy Miller, realized that he wasn’t the only one in search of a low cost and easy way to take pictures of microscope images. I recently had the joy of chatting with Miller and fellow co-founder Tess Bakke about how the SkyLight came to be, and how they think it will impact research, medicine and education.

The SkyLight is essentially an adapter that fixes a smartphone to a microscope. Using the phone’s camera to peer through the eyepiece and snap photos, you get images that are practically indistinguishable from images taken with professional microscopy cameras. The big difference is that conventional microscope cameras can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, while the SkyLight is just $60. Of course, you’ll need a smartphone too, but you probably already have one in your pocket.

The SkyLight adapter consists of a movable platform that the smartphone fits into, and a base that locks onto just about any microscope eyepiece. After connecting the smartphone to the eyepiece, you adjust the platform position to align the camera correctly, and adjust it up and down for focus. Lock it up, and you’re ready to take pictures.

“I was building a microscope in college,” Miller tells me casually, as if microscope-building was as normal as joining the chess club, “and I was trying to attach a telephone to that microscope and I realized, well, it’s fine if I can attach one cell phone to one microscope but it would be pretty feasible to have a universal adapter that would allow me to attach any phone to any microscope.”

Miller likes to build microscopes, but there’s a purpose behind his geeky pursuit. While studying bioengineering and global health at Rice University, he designed and built the Global Focus microscope – a simple, affordable microscope that can be built for areas of the world with limited resources. With off-the-shelf lenses and mirrors, an LED flashlight for a light source, and running off batteries, the microscope could take bright field and fluorescent images and cost only $240 to make. Right now there are 20 prototypes being tested in the US, Central America, and Africa.

Not too shabby: a 10X image of esophageal cells taken by an iPhone 4S.

As the Kickstarter page confesses, “Now he’s bent on making meaningful change through design.” The SkyLight is a simple idea that could have profound results. Connecting a cell phone to a microscope not only saves money, but in a developing country, it makes the difference between quality care or not. Don’t have a pathologist in your rural Kenyan village? No problem. Just send the images to the hospitals in Nairobi. SkyLight can literally bring together innovative solutions such as the Global Focus microscope and the $80 IDEOS Android smartphone, which 350,000 Kenyans had scooped up as of this past summer, to extend the reach of much needed quality healthcare.

The idea for the SkyLight came to Miller while building the cheap microscopes in Africa. The lack of resources available there forced him to create a general design. “How do you make it work with anything you might have?” He made a product that would work with any cell phone. Had he been in the US and had all the resources he needed, Miller expects the adapter he’d have come up with would have been specifically built for an iPhone and only an iPhone, or a specific microscope together with a specific phone. The tightened constraints in Africa forced Miller to make a more general use device, and it’s all the better for it. The SkyLight can work for different phones and different microscope with different kinds of eyepieces. And even though they’re focusing on microscopes at the moment, the team expects that SkyLight will eventually be used to mate smartphones with other types of cameras such as spotting scopes, the telephoto cameras used by birders. Check out their gallery of images here.

Think you could tell the difference between images taken with a phone and conventional camera? While they haven’t rigorously compared the images taken by their smartphone with images taken by conventional microscopy cameras, they’ve already passed the eyeball test. As Miller tells me, the Kickstarter page “received the most attention from…doctors, pathologists who want to do doctor-to-doctor consult.” Some physicians actually contacted the group and asked that they take pictures of samples. They took the pictures with an iPhone 4S with a resolution of 8-megapixels. After posting the pictures on their website they were contacted by multiple pathologists who told them that it’s good enough for them to make diagnoses.

The SkyLight won the Proto Labs Cool Idea! Award in the program’s inaugural year. According to their website, Proto Labs is the “world’s fastest” maker of CNC machined and injection molded parts. Their Cool Idea! Award is aimed at producing high quality prototypes for startup businesses that might not have the resources to follow through on a good idea. In a press release about the award, Proto Labs cited how SkyLight enables researchers, clinicians and educators to communicate in new ways by combining tools already available to them. Winning the award was a key achievement for SkyLight’s mission to make the adapter available to those who need it. The mold that Proto Lab has created lowers production cost and makes it more affordable. The SkyLight was listed on Kickstarter for $60, but Miller and Bakke hope to work with an NGO in the future and offer the adapter for even less.

Bakke emphasized SkyLight’s social enterprise aspect, mentioning their 5 to 1 promise: for every five SkyLights they sell they’re going to donate one to schools or other places like a local health program that could use them.

We shouldn’t forget that the camera in use is still a phone. Miller and Bakke point out that SkyLight could be used live; that is, you could connect a collaborator with a live view through your microscope all the while having a conversation.

“Can you move it a little to the left…great, now zoom in.”

As an easy and inexpensive way to generate and share images, SkyLight is an ideal telemedicine tool. Wanting to explore SkyLight’s potential, the company has sending their prototype to telemedicine researchers to tap their imaginations. At the same time they’re encouraging apps developers to come up with apps to improve image-based smartphone telemedicine and telediagnosis capabilities. Miller mentioned one app that would be universally useful would be an app that pushes images directly to a server, and labels and organizes them. That way people wouldn’t have to email or text themselves every image they want to keep.

Right now the adapter is still in its testing and production phase, but they expect SkyLight to be ready around the first of March. When that happens there will be no shortage of takers. Their first production run will be aimed at filling Kickstarter orders and getting feedback for improvement.

Kickstarter is great for turning great ideas into real tools. SkyLight's goal was to raise $15,000. They ended up with over $22,000. I have no doubt that these two, enthusiastic young people and the SkyLight will get a lot of attention in the coming months. All they did was find a way to combine technologies that already existed, showing us once again you don't need to reinvent the wheel to create something useful.

[image credits: SkyLight]
images: SkyLight

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

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