In the 4 May Nature technology feature, I explore the growing use of smartphones to drive scientific research. Today’s phones are so full-featured, they’re often ready for use out-of-the-box. Sometimes, though, a custom app is required, and that can be a sticking point, as programming a mobile app isn’t easy.
Traditionally, mobile apps are written like software always has been — in code. Using a so-called ‘integrated development environment’, for instance — all-in-one workspaces combining a code editor, help center, debugger, and interface designer — researchers with a bit of programming savvy can build an app more or less from the ground up. Apple’s Xcode programming environment, Google’s Android Studio, and Microsoft’s Visual Studio all fit into this category.
For those with limited programming skills, there are simpler alternatives. One is Fulcrum, a tool for creating smartphone-based data-collection forms, whose data can then be synced with the cloud. Christopher Carr, a research scientist at MIT and part of a NASA-funded team developing instrumentation to detect extraterrestrial life, has used that approach at Volcán Copahue in the Andes mountains. The site serves as a “Mars analog,” and the team uses Fulcrum to document the “context” — the GPS coordinates and soil pH, for instance — of the microbial samples they collect there.
Another option is ‘visual programming’, in which apps are created graphically, with little or no coding. Emil Schwan, a pharmaceutical inspector in Sweden’s Medical Products Agency, helped develop an Android-based time-lapse imaging tool for monitoring cell migration. Though time-lapse imaging software already exists, Schwan says, his team required a custom app to run the experiment itself — for instance, to set the incubation temperature and control an external shutter that they installed to control light exposure.
Schwann took advantage of the MIT App Inventor, a visual programming environment in which code is built by positioning and connecting blocks of code on a virtual canvas like puzzle pieces. (Microsoft Phone developers can use Windows App Studio instead.) Once assembled, the app can be uploaded to an Android phone and run.
“You can write an app with more or less no skill,” he says.
There’s one other tool for smartphone scientists I should mention here: LEGO Digital Designer. Though smartphones formed the heart of many of the tools I covered, those phones (or the samples they worked with) were often held in place on scaffolds created using 3D printing. But Julien Colombelli, head of the Advanced Digital Microscopy Core Facility at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, designed his smartphone-enabled light-sheet microscope out of LEGO bricks.
LEGO is actually a great choice for instrument prototyping, Colombelli says, because users can iterate designs so rapidly. By comparison, 3D printers are relatively slow and often shared, meaning they may not be available when you need them. Using the Digital Designer software, researchers can develop designs in virtual space, then order the necessary pieces using LEGO’s “Pick a Brick” service.
“In terms of workflow, for a potential customer, a kid, school, or lab to actually get this instrument quickly, then the LEGO is [the most accessible option],” he says — “at least, faster than a 3D printer.”
Jeffrey Perkel is Technology Editor, Nature