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Single Microscopic Lens Captures 3D Images

The camera lens evolves to capture multiple angled views through a single lens.

Microscopes have long been used in a variety of applications to magnify the tiny, unseen elements in our world so we can study their details with greater appreciation. Engineers at Ohio State University (OSU) have recently crafted a single lens that allows for nine simultaneous images to be taken of a microscopic object—all from different angles—resulting in a true-to-form 3D image later composited via computer.


Unlike current 3D stereoscopic microscopes that require at least two lenses or other multi-lens systems that function by moving around the subject and taking separate images, this fixed lens can be attached to a single microscope to capture the desired 3D information. The prototype lens looks like half of a gemstone, but the eight facets that surround the primary surface are all different sizes and angles. Crafting the thermoplastic lens—whose final shape is hardly larger than a fingernail—was made feasible by utilizing a computer program developed by OSU researcher Lei Li to assist a commercially available ultra-precise milling device, though the engineers say a similar lens can be manufactured less expensively through traditional molding techniques.

So far, the team at OSU have successfully collected images of a ballpoint pen tip (1 millimeter in diameter) and a mini drill bit (0.2 in diameter), and released the images online. Allen Yi, an associate professor of integrated systems engineering at OSU who led the research with Li on the project, plans to develop the technology further for commercial manufacturing, with particular interest in the medical testing industry. One can obviously see the benefits of such an instrument being used in our understanding of biological samples or to further refine surgical equipment, but what future does this technology hold for artists interested in raw image acquisition?

Recently we saw a documentary on about microphotographer Michael Davidson who enlightened us with the the beautiful visual potential of photographing the cosmically small. Whether it’s affixing several of these 9-faceted lenses to a single imaging device, or perhaps even enlarging the lens for grander use, the future implementation of this technology will certainly be illuminating.

Images courtesy of Ohio State University.