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Zooming in on the ProScope

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Perhaps it's related to my lousy vision, but I've never had much luck with telescopes or microscopes. Celestial objects look like little white dots to me, and I hate removing my glasses to use a microscope. Don't confuse my inability to use magnification devices for a lack of interest in what they enable you to view - I just want the image blown up to a normal size that I can see comfortably. That's why I was ecstatic at Macworld New York in 2001 when I first saw the ProScope USB microscope that Bodelin distributes in the U.S. I promptly gave it one of our show superlative awards. And had I not remembered the previous superlative, I probably would have given it another one when I saw it at 2002's Macworld San Francisco. It's a neat device, and it demos incredibly well.


Referring to the microscope is actually a bit tricky, and you may see various names used in different situations. Bodelin calls it the ProScope, but they're actually just the distributor for the microscope, which is manufactured by another company called Scalar. Its full name, as emblazoned on the device, is "Scalar USB Microscope M2," although "theScope" is also printed on the head of the microscope. Call it what you will - I'm going to stick with Bodelin's name, the ProScope.

Magnified Details -- What is the ProScope? As you can see on Bodelin's home page, it's an oddly shaped handheld microscope about six inches tall, with a lens protruding about two inches from the top. It wouldn't look out of place as a futuristic ray gun in a low-budget sci-fi flick. The ProScope fits comfortably in your hand, and it's essentially point-and-shoot, since there's a button your index finger can click to record a still image of what the microscope is displaying or to start and stop movie recording. A switch on the side turns its lens light on and off, and another button releases the lens so you can swap in another one with a different magnification level. Standard tripod mounts on the front and back provide attachment points for securing it when working at higher magnifications, and Bodelin offers a $125 steel stand designed for positioning the microscope in any number of orientations. Finally, a 6-foot USB cable connects it to a USB port on your Mac.

Bodelin sells the ProScope with a 50X lens for $230, and they also carry a $100 1-10X lens that enables the ProScope to work more like a USB webcam, and for those who want to magnify more, 100X ($110) and 200X ($130) lenses are also available. The ProScope also accepts a $20 C-ring threaded lens adapter for working with standard C-mount lenses or for attaching directly to a normal microscope or telescope for image capture.


The hardware is only part of the package. First, you must drop a driver in your Mac OS 9 Extensions folder and reboot - the ProScope doesn't currently work under Mac OS X, although the driver gurus at IOXperts are working on a Mac OS X driver that should work with the camera guts inside the ProScope (which operate at a resolution of 640 x 480 - we're not talking digital camera quality here). See "Driving FireWire Webcams in Mac OS X" in TidBITS-619 for more on IOXperts' driver work.


Second, an application called USB Shot provides the ProScope's real-time display, offers access to settings, and lets you switch between three basic modes: Snap Shot, Movie Shot, and Interval Shot. In Snap Shot mode, clicking the ProScope's button takes a still picture of whatever is currently showing on the display. In Movie Shot mode, clicking the button starts recording a QuickTime movie; a second click stops the recording. In Interval Shot mode, clicking the button starts and stops recording of a QuickTime movie generated from sequential still images. There's also an onscreen equivalent to the ProScope's hardware capture button, which is essential when working at 200X magnification because touching the microscope's button can cause the picture to shake unacceptably. Pictures and movies you record show up as thumbnails in a filmstrip-style interface below the main display pane; clicking one replaces the real time display with the stored image. The pictures and movies have sequentially numbered names, and live in user-defined folders on your hard disk, so it would be easy to add them to an image cataloging program like iPhoto or a media cataloging program like iView MediaPro, which can handle movies as well as still images.


Up Close Testing -- I test a lot of products, and few have stood out as much as the ProScope for pure fun. A highly technical friend was visiting the night after my review unit arrived, so after Tristan was in bed, we all retired to my office and starting pointing the ProScope at anything within reach of its 6-foot cord. Hair, skin, clothing, small tchotchkes from my desk, and so on. The 50X lens we initially used proved to work the best for the kind of real-world objects we were viewing.

The 200X lens was trickier to use, since keeping the ProScope steady enough to get a good picture proved almost impossible. Attaching it to the stand helped significantly, although even then adjusting the focus or clicking the capture button could jar the ProScope enough to move the image. The 1-10X lens (which lacked the built-in lens light of the other two lenses) turned the ProScope into a relatively standard webcam, and as such, it wasn't particularly interesting, although it appeared to work acceptably and I did have some fun pointing it at its own display on the screen, so the feedback images appeared to repeat into infinity.

But using the 50X lens opened up an entirely new way of looking at familiar objects, and for me, being a writer, a new way of looking at words. That undoubtedly sounds odd, but when you look at tiny text at 50X magnification, the words somehow gain mass and weight, and stand up from the surface they're on. Plus, you can see so little at a time that you end up parsing the text very differently. Fibers in clothing also proved fascinating, since you could see the warp and weft of the weave perfectly. At that level of magnification, fibers also weren't always the colors you expected - just because something looks black in aggregate doesn't mean that every thread used to make it was black. The same proved to be true of hair - although my hair is a light brown made lighter by an increasing amount of gray, individual hairs spanned the gamut of shades. Check out the gallery of images (and two movies) I took with the ProScope for an indication of what you can do and see.

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The target audience for the ProScope is undoubtedly K-12 science teachers, since the ProScope is easy enough to use for the youngest children, and particularly in this video-intensive world, making science highly visible can't but help make kids more interested. I could even see parents getting one for kids to play with at home. It's not just for kids either. A molecular biologist friend borrowed the ProScope from me for a few days, and his research lab came to a grinding halt for much of a day as he and his graduate students put it through its paces. They have plenty of powerful microscopes, but the ProScope provided a useful combination of decent magnification and a form factor that worked well for quick looks at objects that didn't lend themselves to being mounted on slides (think dissected mouse guts). The fact that images could also be captured easily for publication was also a plus. Bodelin has also been seeing a lot of interest from the law enforcement community - since I heard that, I haven't been able to banish the mental image of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes holding a ProScope and peering at an iBook as though it were a magnifying glass. Reportedly Bodelin is working on adding a lens for taking pictures of fingerprints as well.

Zoom in on Rough Edges -- There's no question that the ProScope is utterly cool, but it still has some annoyances. Most notable is that it doesn't work at all when plugged into a keyboard's USB port, and when I plugged it into the powered Dr. Bott gHub on my desk, it worked, but was horribly flaky. Plugging it into my Power Mac G4's USB port eliminated all the problems, but tied up a good chunk of the 6-foot cable. An iBook or PowerBook would provide the maximum flexibility. (As an aside, Dr. Bott is now selling the ProScope in both the U.S. and Germany, making it a bit easier to find.)


To be fair, this requirement of avoiding a USB hub is alluded to in the documentation, but the documentation is so terrible that I expect many people will miss the few bits of useful information hidden in the poorly translated (from Japanese) manuals. (My favorite: "If you cannot get a happy color image, please try the below.") There are two paper manuals, both of which are in Japanese and English (such as it is) - one manual documents the microscope, and the other covers installing the software for Windows and Macintosh. (The entire package is fully Windows-compatible as well.) There's also a PDF guide to using the software that's slightly better than the printed manuals, although it has some encoding errors that generate an error dialog in Adobe Acrobat Reader every time I open it. Frankly, it's a shame - a product this neat shouldn't be shackled by documentation that's both unhelpful and badly translated. I haven't beaten this dead horse in a while, but there are plenty of technical writers who could do a far better job for not much money, and barring that, there are certainly many translators who could at least render the original into proper English.


USB Shot itself is a simple application, and although it would be easy to complain about some of its various design decisions, it does what it sets out to do. My main irritation is that you can't even run it without the ProScope attached, which would be awkward in a classroom, for instance, where kids using multiple computers should be able to review their images while sharing a single ProScope.

The hardware side has a few annoyances as well. The switch that controls the light has three settings, A, Off, and B. As far as I can tell, A means that the light is on, and both Off and B mean that the light is off. Accurate markings would be nice. Plus, none of those settings will turn off the microscope entirely, and it somehow doesn't seem right to leave it plugged in and turned on all the time, although unplugging it means rooting around behind my Power Mac. Finally, although I'm sure you'd get good at it with practice, I found attaching the lenses a bit awkward, particularly until I figured out that the sticker identifying the magnification level was near the little plastic bit that had to line up with another little plastic bit. A little kid could use the ProScope, but I'd be very leery of letting one change lenses, particularly considering that the CCD that actually captures the image is exposed when the lens is removed. I'd also be leery of traveling with the lenses when they aren't connected to the ProScope - Bodelin tells me they're working on a case that should help keep all the pieces together.

These are but quibbles, though, and once you've managed to connect the ProScope, install the software, and figure out basic operation, none of them will slow you down at all in normal usage. And now, if you don't mind, I need to do some more exploring of the 50X world.


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