Digital imaging has given microscopists a whole new medium with which to capture, store and organize microscope images. Outstandingly flexible, digitally captured images can be saved, annotated, manipulated and used in other software packages for image analysis and presentation. Latest developments in the field of digital camera technology have taken this flexibility a large step further forward – it is now possible to share images in real-time using a digital camera over a network. Users in remote locations can simultaneously share live images, and even control the acquisition of these images as they are being captured, creating a range of new possibilities in the way that digital cameras can be used.
Microscopic examination is increasingly important in a variety of applications – not only in the life sciences where it has always been an invaluable tool for diagnosis and research, but also in industry, where microscopic inspection is growing in importance for quality control procedures. It is becoming very important to be able to capture and efficiently store microscope images to create an audit trail, for example, as part of good laboratory practice (GLP) or to satisfy ISO certification. There is also a growing need for microscopists to have some means of rapidly sharing their images with second parties – in order to obtain second opinions, for example, or to communicate important findings rapidly to a larger audience.
Traditional film photography is often laborious, expensive and cumbersome for this kind of documentation and digital imaging systems are rapidly becoming the method of choice. Digital imaging systems, however, also have their restrictions although they may be less obvious. Automated image storage can become a concern with modern mega pixel digital cameras, for example, as individual files of several megabytes in size can be generated with the possibility that digital storage systems may be quickly overloaded. An additional problem lies in physically maintaining and accessing the vast numbers of images that can be created with digital imaging systems. A high degree of organization is required to find and rapidly retrieve individual images from an image bank. In environments where multiple image acquisition stations are used, the cost for each unit PC, frame grabber and software license may also be an issue.
Overcoming these limitations, Nikon has developed a completely new digital imaging camera known as the DN100 that can automate and streamline the image acquisition process. Enabling real-time viewing of high resolution digital images, without the need for a PC, it provides direct access to almost any network – including the Internet.
To better understand the potential of laboratory image automation, sometimes also referred to as network imaging, it is useful to look at the basics of networking in a little more detail. There are essentially two kinds of networks: external and internal. An external network is possibly the most easily identifiable, with the Internet being the most well known example. Using this system, it is possible to access a multitude of different networks worldwide from a desktop computer. An internal network (intranet) is similar to the systems that are found in most offices – for example, a connection between a PC and printer or a central data storage facility. It is also possible to connect the internal and the external network with a bridging device, often referred to as a router.
In order to ease communication over the network and to provide all network users with a unique identity, certain protocols have to be employed. The most well-known and adapted protocol is the TCP/IP protocol (Transport Control Protocol / Internet Protocol). This procedure issues each network user with an identification, or TCP/IP, number.
The TCP/IP number is a unique sequence consisting of 4, 3-digit numbers separated by a dot (188.8.131.52). It is the responsibility of the LAN system administrator, to issue these TCP/IP numbers. There is a guidebook for the use of TCP/IP numbers that ensures that all numbers in the world are unique. Automatic issuing of IP numbers is also possible by using a so-called automatic name server (DNS = Dynamic Name Server).
Within the field of microscopy, there is an opportunity to exploit these networking capabilities for the systematic storage and sharing of images. The DN100 digital camera adopts the TCP/IP protocol and can therefore send images directly to a designated computer – whether it is located in the same room or elsewhere in the building. It can even be used to send images around the world via the Internet.
Integral software allows images taken by the camera to be viewed and controlled via standard web browsing software. Additional software loaded onto a PC is necessary to enable more sophisticated networking functions. This new software controls image flow and acts as a central image acquisition unit that can support an almost unlimited number of cameras installed on a network – there is no need for a dedicated PC at each imaging station. Acquiring, saving and transferring images over a network can be achieved at the touch of a button, and images can be manipulated, measured and sorted into databases for easy image management.
The new applications that this new technology offers are numerous. It is now possible for microscopic inspections to be shared with remote observers. This is particularly useful in restricted environments, for example, in clean rooms or on the factory floor where it is not always convenient for extra staff to enter. Images observed inside the restricted area can be transmitted outside as they are being captured – allowing the immediate sharing of images with minimum inconvenience. As an example, the integrated circuit image captured by the DN100 and presented in Figure 2 could easily be transmitted throughout a semiconductor fabrication plant to be viewed remotely by engineers who are involved in process monitoring. The camera system also has immediate advantages in the world of medicine – images can be distributed easily and without delay for second opinions or for educational purposes.
Digital networking camera technology is a new method for automating and streamlining workflow for digital image acquisition, storage and transmission. With outstanding benefits in the field of microscopy, this new technology enables rapid exchange of image information across networks to accelerate image sharing and to increase work throughput and efficiency.
Peter Drent - Production Manager, Microscopy Division, Nikon Europe, Schipholweg 321, 1171PL Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands.