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Awesome tech you can’t buy yet: $9 computers and $5 smartphone microscopes

At any given moment there are approximately a zillion different crowdfunding campaigns happening on the Web. Take a stroll through Kickstarter or Indiegogo and you’ll find there’s no shortage of weird, useless, and downright stupid projects out there – alongside some real gems. We’ve cut through the Pebble clones and janky iPhone cases to round up the most unusual, ambitious, and exciting projects out there this week. Keep in mind that any crowdfunded project — even the best intentioned — can fail, so do your homework before cutting a check for the gadget of your dreams.

Dotlens — Smartphone microscope

Prepare to relive your 10th grade biology class, minus the acne. A team of researchers at the University of Houston have come up with an amazing lens that converts the camera on your smartphone into a microscope capable of 15x magnification, or to one-tenth the width of a human hair. Amazingly, each one costs just $5, works like a contact lens, and can be reused over and over again. It’s called the Dotlens, and it’s on Kickstarter right now.

The lens is made from a material called polydimethylsiloxane (or PDMS for short), and its invention was a accident, While working with PDMS, Wei-Chuan Shih, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, noticed it cured when heated up. Then, just out of curiosity, he tried making a lens. He stuck the result to his Lumia 520, compared its 120x magnification ability to a professional-grade Olympus microscope, and found little difference between the two. The main difference comes in the price — the Olympus scope could cost up to $10,000, while this lens contains materials that cost just one cent.

PhoneDrone – Flying smartphone exoskeleton

We’re not sure if this is a bad idea or a brilliant one, but the more we think about it, the more it starts to make sense. PhoneDrone is basically an exoskeleton attachment that turns your smartphone into an autonomous quadcopter drone. Sounds pretty stupid at first, right? Who in their right might would willingly put propellers on their smartphone and allow it to fly up into the air? Gravity will always win in the end, and so from that perspective, yes, PhoneDrone is most definitely a bad idea — but if you look at it from another standpoint, it’s also kind of brilliant.

The problem with most drones, and the reason that it’s tough to find a decent one for less that 500 bucks, is that they generally have a lot of tech under the hood. Tear open any card-carrying consumer-oriented drone and you’ll likely find GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi radios, a high-resolution camera, and an on-board computer. All these technologies are typically what makes drones so expensive, so instead of building that tech into the PhoneDrone directly, xCraft designed a system that leverages all the sensor tech and computing power you already carry around with you inside your smartphone. Using this approach, they were able to create a drone that only costs about $250.

Chip — Ultra-affordable computer

Microcontrollers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi have become very popular in recent years, but their functionality is primarily aimed at hobbyists and coders. Now, a new product on Kickstarter looks set to make the idea of a microcomputer more attainable than ever.  That device is the CHIP, and it comes from Next Thing Co. It can do all the basic tasks you would expect from any other computer; you can use it to do some word processing, check your emails, even play video games — but this computer can be yours for just nine dollars.

For that price, you’ll get a tiny board that you can hook up to any monitor and keyboard and put to use. It comes pre-installed with a host of useful open-source software, including LibreOffice, the Chromium Web browser and coding tool Scratch. The device includes built-in wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, USB, micro USB, and an audio jack. There’s also 4GB of flash storage. Notably, it’s missing an SD card reader for easy storage expansion.

Ikawa — Countertop coffee roaster

It’s not all that unusual to find a coffee shop that roasts its own beans. That’s more than enough for many us, but true coffee aficionados may want to turn their own green beans into roasted perfection.  The Ikawa Home Roaster can certainly make you feel like a professional brewer. A mobile app (iOS and Android) and green coffee beans are all users need to get started.

Once you’ve turned on the roaster, it will automatically pair with the app, and the coffee making can commence. Add about two ounces of unroasted coffee beans to the machine’s doser compartment, then allow the machine to begin preheating. The app lets users to monitor the temperature and preheating process on their mobile device. Once the Home Roaster is warmed up, manually turn the doser to release a stream of beans into the roasting chamber. From here, the actual roasting begins. While the beans brown, you can follow the three-to-10-minute process on the app. After it’s all over, the Home Roaster automatically goes into cool-down mode. The final product is a bunch of super-fresh, roasted beans, ready to be ground up and brewed into the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.

SmartPlate — Diet-tracking dish

Let’s say you’re making spaghetti, but you’re also mindful of your diet and don’t want to overdo it on the carbs. The back of the box tells you how many carbohydrates are in a serving of pasta, but short of counting out the straws and adding the right amount to the pot, there’s not an easy way to tell how much you’re consuming when you’re heaping it on your plate.  There are scales, of course — even smart ones — but taking the time to weigh out each ingredient is a royal pain in the ass. So, to simplify the process of getting an accurate picture of what you’re eating, Fitly decided to embed cameras and sensors in its SmartPlate.

In order to tell what’s on your plate, and how much, the plate is divided into three sections and has three tiny cameras and weight sensors. Using image recognition and weight readings, the SmartPlate scans the USDA’s 8,000-item database, as well as a database of SKUs and restaurant meals. The algorithm can already tell the difference between regular and whole-wheat pasta, without you having to tell it — though you’ll have the option of nixing its suggestion via the smartphone app should the analysis be off.

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Drew Prindle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Drew Prindle is an award-winning writer, editor, and storyteller who currently serves as Senior Features Editor for Digital…
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