written by: Robyn Broyles•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 8/29/2008
Digital microscopes are versatile tools, combining all the capabilities of regular microscopes with new abilities, such as image and video sharing and enhanced portability. They can be used for research, industry, and education.
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Digital microscopes use sensors that convert analog information from incoming light into digital images. The ability to produce, save, and share digital still images and video gives digital microscopes a range of uses from personal entertainment to medical diagnostics.
Digital microscope products vary considerably. On the low end are inexpensive devices that amount to little more than toys. High-end digital microscopes, on the other hand, are designed for research and clinical use. Some have special features such as the ability to view objects in three dimensions and from any angle. Their capabilities equal or exceed those of regular microscopes.
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Specialized uses of digital microscopes
A digital microscope has all the uses of a regular optical microscope. The ability to create still images and video easily, and to share them via e-mail or other electronic means, gives them several additional key uses in the medical field:
Telepathology. Telepathology is the practice of pathology using images shared electronically. This technology makes it possible for pathologists to consult their colleagues regardless of geographical location. Digital microscopy makes telepathology practical, as images of slides can be easily transmitted among pathologists all over the globe.
Continuing medical education. Creating digital microscope images and sharing them via the Internet results in what can be termed "virtual slides" that are valuable for continuing medical education for medical professionals in developing countries (Jará & Barcelo, Diagn Pathol. 2008; 3(Suppl 1): S24). Virtual slides enable doctors and other practitioners to take advantage of the expertise and resources of their colleagues in other parts of the world without the need for expensive travel. Only a computer with an Internet connection is necessary.
Studies comparing digital microscopy to conventional histopathological methods in clinical settings, such as during cancer surgeries, are underway, with preliminary results showing good but not necessarily equally accurate results (Kurita et al., Am. J. Surg. 2006).
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Handheld digital microscopes (USB microscopes)
Some digital microscopes are handheld devices. They are often called USB microscopes, although this terminology can be confusing because regular digital microscopes also connect to a computer via a USB cable. A handheld USB microscope can be used on almost any object and has many applications:
Field research. These highly portable devices can be taken into the field along with a laptop computer to make microscopic images and video outside the laboratory.
Detailed repair work, such as jewelry repair.
Quality control in manufacture and assembly, for example of electronics.
Law enforcement. A USB microscope can be used to detect counterfeit documents or applied to forensic investigation in crime labs.
Document examination, such as historical document analysis and forensic document examination.
Hobbies such as coin and stamp collecting.
Science education. Educational images for teachers and students are convenient to obtain and can be examined at length on a computer or printed out for use as illustrations. Good results have been reported from classrooms (Dickerson & Kubasko, Contemp. Issues in Tech. & Teacher Ed. 2007).
Fun. Both young people and adults find it entertaining to apply a USB microscope to objects found around the house, in the backyard, or in the refrigerator. One can magnify one's own skin and hair, the texture of a wall, bread mold, insects and spiderwebs, and a myriad of other things.