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A virtual microscope is a suite of software and data components that make it possible for users to access real, archived images via the Internet and to explore them on their computer as though using a real microscope. It is a useful research, teaching, and learning tool but is limited by the size of the library of stored images and by the difficulty of rendering the three dimensional images seen through an actual stereo microscope. The virtual nature of the images allows users to manipulate and explore images using their computer in ways that a basic microscope cannot, however.
Depending upon the intended use, a virtual microscope can be a simple intuitive interface with a small library of images used as a children's interactive exercise to teach them the fundamentals of microscopy, or it can be a comprehensive interactive tool with complete simulated functionality of several types of real microscopes that draws on a very large database of images. The one characteristic shared by all types of virtual microscope is that they are all computer simulations of the features and capabilities of a real microscope. Some may be freely accessible to the public while others may be accessible only to those with authorized access in the case of sensitive research or forensic evidence collected for law enforcement purposes.
A database of images is the basis for all virtual microscopes, and any such system is limited by the size of its image library. Actual images taken with cameras and real microscopes are converted to extremely high resolution digital files and stored in a database where they can be accessed by users of the virtual microscope system. The functions of one or more types of microscope are simulated by software, allowing users to manipulate and study images in the same way they would be able to if studying a specimen with a real microscope.
The development of virtual microscopes is an important advancement in teaching as it allows many more students to make use of microscopic images without the need for the physical instruments, which many institutions could not otherwise accomplish without purchasing a larger number of expensive actual instruments. Instead of purchasing additional microscopes and providing facilities for their use, a university can allow students to simply download and install the virtual microscope software onto their personal computers. By providing online image libraries, it also allows many more students and researchers than would ordinarily have access to make use of data .