Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) is getting an improved camera with the iPhone 4S, but a medical research team has gone a step further, turning the iPhone into a powerful, professional-caliber imaging and chemical detection device, according to The Optical Society. In other words, the $40 hack engineered by the team makes the iPhone a lab-worthy medical microscope.
Using a ball lens, which only offers five times magnification, the team was able to bump it up to 1.5 microns, which is small enough to spot different kinds of blood cells, thanks to smartphone camera augmentation. Digital image processing software corrects distortion resulting from the ball lens, and stitches together photos of the small focus area produced using the method to create a big enough picture for doctors or medical technicians to properly analyze.
The Optical Society explains how it’s possible that the combination of a ball lens and smartphone camera can achieve such impressive results:
There are two reasons why such low magnification produces such high-resolution images. First, ball lenses excel at gathering light, which determines resolution. Second, the camera’s semiconductor sensor consists of millions of light-capturing cells. Each cell is only about 1.7 microns across. This is small enough to capture precisely the tiny high-resolution image that comes through the ball lens.
The iPhone hack isn’t perfect; high-priced laboratory versions are still much better. But the iPhone and ball lens combo is good enough that it could provide a cheap, plentiful stand-in for medical professionals working in remote areas, or in communities where there isn’t a budget for more high-tech solutions. Things the iPhone camera can detect include problems like iron deficiency anemia and banana-shaped red blood cells that indicate sickle-cell anemia.
Researchers also think it would be relatively easy to switch out the ball lens with a spectrometer in order to interpret light gathered by the iPhone’s camera lens. This could be used to measure how much oxygen is present in a blood sample and help spot chemical indicators of disease early.
Presumably improvements unveiled Tuesday could help push this tech even further, making for an even more lab-like experience from an Apple mobile device; $600 or more may not seem cheap to a potential unlocked iPhone buyer, but compared to medical imaging tech, it’s a steal.