Arpan Roy  |  Singapore
Published 2014-03-12 14:30:33

I have to admit that I  am usually a bit skeptical while watching those TED talks.

Every talk has an outrageous claim, either some device or method which will completely change our lives or some hidden personality traits which will make us superhuman if we can really tap into it. I happened to chance upon another talk from Stanford about a paper microscope claiming to change the world as we know it.

So according to this  TED talk, bio engineer Manu Prakash and his colleagues have created a microscope out of paper costing less than a dollar.

In spite of low cost and ease of assembly, the microscope offers up to 2000X magnification. Prakash and his colleagues demonstrated the imaging of disease causing microbes using this “orgami” microscope, a word repeated strongly throughout the talk.

“Origami” Microscope. What does that mean ?

The entire microscope can be printed on a two-dimensional card and be punched out to be assembled into a working device as shown in the video above.

Not only can you use your eye for examination of microscopic samples, the inbuilt LED which runs for 50 hours on a single battery can be used to project a larger image on the screen.

All the movement of the microscope including the focusing are controlled by movement of paper tabs. The XY direction movement can be controlled by pulling out tabs in the particular direction while the focusing is using a paper flexure mount.

More details of the working of the microscope have been outlined in the paper on arxiv.

Prakash’s claim is that due to the principle of “origami” (Japanese art of paper folding or a child’s past time of making paper ducks), all the optics will line up perfectly to give an usable image.  Schematic below illustrates how it will work when projecting either an image onto a screen or our eye.

Principles of Operation Image: Cybulski et al., arxiv.org
Principles of Operation
Image: Cybulski et al., arxiv.org

Apart from the simplicity of the device engineering, the major advantage of this microscope is that it can be used on the field in poor countries, rapidly accelerating diagnosis of diseases and saving lives.

A Device to Change our Lives Completely. True or False ?

It is true that a 50 cent device providing up to 2000X magnification is drastically more attractive than the conventional microscopes, which always cost a few tens of thousand dollars.

However, these tens of thousand of dollars are due to optics which give razor sharp images with a few nanometer resolution. A spherical ball lens suffers from the most basic of optical defects, something called spherical aberrations, this is the same reason spherical mirrors and lenses are never used in serious optical instruments.

If we cannot really get over the 50 cent argument, let me tell you that a 20 dollar microscope from Toy’s R Us which I bought 10 years ago gave me significantly better resolution with magnifications up to 600X.


If you look at the schematic illustrating the working of the device, you will notice that your eye will be approximately 1 cm away from the microscope slide containing disease causing microbes. As we know that our eyes similar to our noses provide a pathway to microbes to enter our body, I would not want my eye to be 1 cm away from a cesspool of microbes.

Finally, the creator’s claim that the principle of “Origami” helps to align the optics is basically techno-babble mixed with Asian mysticism to seduce a Western audience. When your microscope contains a single optical element, that is the spherical lens there is actually nothing to align in the device.

The Final Verdict

It is certainly an interesting device causing  some buzz on the Internet, although it may not live up to its fad. If people invested a little more time into making a serious device which is not made out of paper, a semi decent portable microscope can be made within 10 dollars as good as my Toy’s R Us microscope always was.

Also read: [Amazing] With Spritz, we may soon finish full novels in under 80 minutes

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