Sunday, June 18, 2023

A New Series: Article #1: 3D Printed Action Camera Interface to Microscopes

In this upcoming series of articles I want to combine my love of 3D design with my love of microscopy.

Actually, microscopy has held a place in my heart and life a LOT longer than 3D printing.  It goes all the way back to 1958, when I was in the 8th grade and my parents gave me a child's Tasco microscope with some of the world's worst optics!

TASCO Microscope circa 1958

To me, the lack of quality mattered a lot less than the fact that I was able to see a whole new world of fascinating creatures that lived in the swamps near my home.  That little scope planted the seeds of a lifelong interest in protozoology and discovery that stays with me more than 60 years later.  I enjoy watching protozoa like others go bird watching.

I've had many more microscopes in my life since then.  But, I still have a deep fondness for introducing low cost microscopes to children in a way that might instill in them the same love of discovery that my parent's gift sparked in me.

I do think the concept works.  If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that my favorite scope for younger children is the low powered stereo microscope.  At the time of this writing, this one is available for under $27 on AMScope.  But, if this one is sold out, carries many more at very reasonable prices.


I gave each of my granddaughters a similar scope when they were very young, and both ended up graduating as the  valedictorians of their respective graduating high school classes.  The oldest graduated from William & Mary college and is now serving a two year lab program at NIH.

Action cameras are so small and light that they are perfectly suited for mating with student microscopes including those that might normally be considered toys.  While I would always encourage parents to buy the best microscopes they can afford, the reality is that many cannot afford high cost microscopes with high priced dedicated microscope cameras.

 Consideration #1: Dedicated Microscope Cameras are extremely extremely expensive.

While it is possible to find a dedicated microscope camera in the $50 range, at this level they have very limited resolution and brightness capabilities.  In this price range, 1.3mpx or 5mpx still images are the norm.  But, where these cameras suffer the most is in their frame rate for video capture.  As resolution goes up, the frame rate goes down dramatically.

Here is the typical YUY2 frame rate table for a dedicated microscope camera in the under $100 price range.

  • 2592 x 1944@2FPS
  • 2048x1536@2FPS
  • 1920x1080@4FPS
  • 1600x1200@4FPS
  • 1280x720@4FPS
  •  280x960@4FPS
  • 1024x768@6FPS
  • 800x600@15FPS
  • 640x480@30FPS 

 This is fine for static slides; but, can become a bit frustrating when trying to capture fast moving protozoa.

The least expensive 4K dedicated microscope camera I could find on Amazon was $190 and above.  Compare this cost with a 4K Action Camera that goes for as little as $33 at the time of this article and it's plain that more people should be able to afford to add an action camera to their microscopes than a dedicated camera of the same quality.

Here is my first quick demonstration capture using a typical student microscope and the Xilecam 4K action camera that costs just $33.99 on Amazon that arrived this afternoon.  I immediately noticed a lack if lag and ghosting typical of my dedicated microscope cameras, caused by slow frame rates.  I'm very impressed!

 Consideration #2: Dedicated Microscope Cameras fit a specific size of Microscope

Almost all dedicated microscope cameras fit just 3 sizes of microscope tubes.. 23mm, 30mm and 30.5mm.  They do not, generally, fit children's microscopes.  While I am not a fan of these super low cost microscopes, I have to remember that my own love of microscopy began with just this type of microscope.  If that is all a family can afford, then I still want to find a way to enhance their child's experience with their microscope and that means finding an equally low cost way to capture and share what they can see with the scope they have.

 Consideration #3: Action Cameras offer a wide range of educational benefits.

As a science teacher, many decades ago, my ultimate goal for my students was that they not only learn how to observe; but, attain a passion and love of the very process of observing.  My basic method was to start big and continually focus on finding ever smaller details.  We started simply using the naked eye, moved to magnifying glasses and through a series of microscope observations from low to high power.  

A dedicated microscope camera is useful in only a small widow of that journey.  But, an action camera can be used at every step of the way.  Even the lowest cost action camera I have tested (Under $34) has a variety of settings for Field of View, including "close".   This provides views from wide to narrow that provide students with the ability to gather ever increasingly detailed information about the world around them.  And, unlike dedicated microscope cameras, they can be dunked under water in the special housing that comes in the action camera package.  Getting an up close and personal view of tadpoles is well within the capabilities of an action camera.  That can't be said for a dedicated microscope camera.

Consideration #4:  It's very easy to design a 3D printed interface between an action camera and microscope

 In the next few blog articles, we will cover the processes of discovering what it takes to create an interface between an action camera and various types and sizes of microscopes.  We'll discuss ways to adjust for the different eye relief distances between various eyepieces.  It's actually quite easy once we correctly measure the center of the lens of the the action camera relative to it's overall size and shape.  It turns out that most brand names follow the same basic design and may even be manufactured in the very same plant as other brands.  

We'll go over each step of the design process in Moment of Inspiration, which is available as a fully functional 90-day trial so that anyone that desires can follow along and create their personally designed interface for the action camera of their choice.  And, because we are passionate about microscopy ourselves we promise to make time available for those that might be interested in following along and need a bit of help here or there. 

In the end, the goals is to create designs for a wide variety of camera and eyepiece combinations that can be freely downloaded.  We will start with designs for two cameras, the DragonTouch Vision3 ($69 on Amazon)...


DragonTouch Vision3

 and the Xilecam 4K 30fps ($33 on Amazon).  

Xilecam 4K 30fps

I'm hoping to be able to experiment with the Xilecam 4K 60fps camera as well.  DragonTouch and Asako are related brands, so it should be easy to adapt to the popular Asako EK7000 series as well.  So, if you have a brand of camera that you already own, I look forward to working with you to expand the community's resources.  I'm even interested in seeing if the unique PROGRACE children's cameras can be successfully used with a microscope. 

PROGRACE Children's Action Camera

 It will be a fun adventure!


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