VR (Virtual Reality) and Microscopy

by Mol Smith, UK


As technology continues to probe how to fascinate young people with mobile phone technology, partly - I believe - to entrap them into becoming marketing objects, I keep my eye on what is going on. I look for ideas which might benefit the study of our world at the small scale.
The latest 'flavour' of this period is VR headsets and virtual reality which offer user experiences of 3D, or 360 degree movies and images. The technology is also being used to overlay real world visual experience with digital content.

I must confess here that 3D has always fascinated me since a boy, as it will have done most people. I also make movies and I constantly look at the changing ways of delivering novel experiences through this medium. But before I go further, an explanation of the technology might be helpful.

So, this is the type of thing I'm talking about:

If you are a senior kind of person, you might scoff at this device. If you are a youngster, it offers promise of entering a virtual world and leaving this one ... for a while.

Anyway, it is really nothing more than a 3D viewer, an evolved idea stemming from those Victorian 3D viewers, and later, the plastic 1960's 3D viewers. They all rely on two side by side images being presented to two lenses close to the eyes. But here we are in the 21st century so there is no sliding in a piece of cardboard with two nearly identical images into it. No. Your smart phone slides into it, or better put... you place your phone into it.

The one on the left costs about £80.00 but I bought one of a different brand for about £20.00 in a local store. And many cheap variants exist and can be purchased from Amazon.

The critical thing is the size of your phone, its screen, and the method used to accommodate the phone into the pod.

And never to miss a trick, Google has come up with a £15.00 option called Google Cardboard.


Various 'Apps' (software for smart phones) can be downloaded to introduce a way of navigating what you see in the eye-set (headset?) to explore 3D generated worlds, or 3D generated experiences or a virtual non-3D experience like being wheeled  through a mental hospital (a fictional movie) or riding a roller coaster. My interest lies not with any of that and thus none of these Apps are required.

My fascination is how we present new views to people today which (I guess) mimic what people in the past also saw as new views into the world around them in their era.

I can see there is a slightly more than just  simple 3D viewing functionality which the 360 degree experience offers. This is interesting but possibly of little use right now for presenting microscopical content. it allows the glasses wearer to look around in virtual worlds via the playing of 360 degree videos. One novel video I tried was a roller coaster ride.

But I also experimented with the 3D functionality and explored its novelty value. And this aspect  does hold some small degree of promise as I will show.

We received some fantastic images from a biology teacher and science writer in Beijing China, taken with a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) [ See article ]. I converted these and other images on our site for use with the VR glasses. They will work on Google Cardboard too. The images are all copyright of their creators.

Here's me on the right looking at the 3D images I made using the VR glasses. Don't laugh ... okay ... do laugh. What have we come to aye, in this age of technology?

Now, if you have VR glasses or Google Cardboard, you can download a set of images from this directory to look at in 3D using the glasses. The trick is to present 2 different views side by side but so you can see what a few of these look like without 3D glasses or VR glasses, I have put animated gifs of them below along with their names.

Above: Cucumber Tendril

Above: Open Stoma 

Above:  Pumpkin Tendril

Above:  Young Pitcher

So, what we need now is a 360 degree camera small enough to put into a pond life water sample on a slide, or a clever 3D modeller to create a CGI 360 degree experience of swimming around amongst micro creatures. Maybe I should give that a go, I'll see.

You don't need any software to see the 3D images on your phone with the VR headset or Google Cardboard. Just view the pictures one by one after downloading them.

Related Micscape articles:
How will we use photomicrographs in virtual reality: Imagining the applications of head mounted displays by Josh Shagam, Micscape, May 2016.

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Published in the August 2016 edition of Micscape.

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