Half-way through my graduation project I was utterly fascinated by the remarkable world of algae. I bough a decent microscope and went ‘fishing’ for algae in a nearby pond. Looking at the microscopic world was awesome but I didn’t knew what I was seeing, and the view was nowhere near the awesome pictures of stunning algae I could find on the interwebs. At the time I was also heavily inspired by the game Botanicula, if you are reading this than you should definitely play this game! (They also made Machinarium.) Anyways, I set the challenge to myself to design a microscope that would augment the existing view of the microscope so that this awesome tools becomes more accessible and informative. I also wanted to make the microscope more user friendly and more suitable for a museum setting (the Hortus Botanicus Leiden was my client and was looking into ways of making algae more visible in their collection).

 

So what’s the plan?

This is the short version: the plan is to make a fake digital microscope with real pictures of all sorts of cool algae.

Building my first microscope, well sort of…

Here are some pictures of building the hardware. I designed all the parts in Solidworks which were then laser cut. The design features some tough weird angled stuff with the viewfinder. For the frame a ‘sandwich’ technique was used to have a sturdy shape and hollow space for the electronics. I designed it in such a ways that the sub assemblies could be mounted easily (I could interchange different viewfinder much like a real microscope).

The electronics in the microscope were simple, I used phidgets (don’t know if these are still available) to register user input through the use of a couple of sensors. The most obvious user input from a microscope is the focus wheel and the position of the viewing glass, they determine mostly what you see. I used a rotary encoder and a thumb slide joystick to mimic these user inputs. I also used an LDR (light dependent resistor) to determine if the user was blocking the view of the microscope with for example his hands.

After that, the only thing left to do was the software! I created a flash ‘game’ written in actionscript that basically took the user input form the microscope and simulate those movements in the digitally created ‘algae world’.

 

The goal of the project was not to fool people in thinking this was a real microscope, I wanted the user to have a familiar object to work with rather than a totally new (and potentially strange) apparatus. But I did manage to fool quiet a bunch of people of thinking this was some sort of ‘new’ and ‘high-tech’ microscope :D.

 

I did a lot of user testing with this microscope at the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden and got interesting responses from people. One of the improvements I wanted to make was the integration of information into the viewfinder of the microscope. I also had plans to have multiple ‘specimens’ that would have different algae species. All of these improvements, and some more, were addressed in the augmented microscope MK II ! Documented in a next post :)