To see the world on the microscopic level, you usually need, well, microscopes. But with sensitive cameras and a gel that deforms around even the ink on a printed page, a team at MIT has developed a compact, portable equivalent. A device about the size of a soda can, it can register objects as small as two micrometers across.
A little pad of gel, coated on one side with metallic paint, is at the center of the device. When pressed against a finger, a dollar bill, or a Post-It, the paint on the gel gently bends to fit the form of the object. Cameras arrayed above the gel snap images of the pattern imprinted in the paint, and computer vision algorithms reconstruct the surface in 3D. The result is beautifully detailed imagesof such objects as the individual barbules of a feather, shown above.