Designing a 3D-Printed Phone Camera Lens Mount

I’ve long wanted to order a 3D print from Shapeways or Sculpteo, but wasn’t interested in buying a meaningless trinket designed by a stranger. The novelty of 3D printing lies in the physical manifestation your own idea.

So before I had an idea, I needed a problem to solve. Luckily I have a lot of those. I have a small, cheap fisheye lens that’s designed for smartphone cameras, but it’s suggested method of mounting the lens to the camera is decidedly less than smart. The kit came with a small metal ring, like a washer, that you are supposed to glue to your phone, and the lens itself has a magnet that holds it to the ring. I actually did stick the ring to my iPhone 4 with its provided sticky goop, but then the phone had a slight protuberance and thus wouldn’t sit flat on a table (which really doesn’t matter, but annoyed me). Soon the ring fell off the glass-backed iPhone, so I just used the lens by holding it up to the camera. That works but it’s pretty cumbersome.

More expensive kits come with a nice mount that slides onto the corner of the phone, holding the wide angle lens in place. They also cost over fifty bucks while the lens itself only costs around eight bucks. So I decided to invent a solution. Or rather, to make my own knockoff of the expensive solution.

I’m already a bit familiar with modeling and design software as I’ve always had a cursory interest in 3D modeling and animation, and I was lucky enough to take a brief AutoCAD course in high school. For the most part I taught myself when I was a teenager by pirating high-end software. I didn’t really want to sail the high seas of The Pirate Bay anymore, so after a quick googlin’ I found that Autodesk has a suite of cool, free design apps that are oriented towards amateurs.

And so I measured my phone with a ruler, sketched my design on a post-it note, and went to work. Ninety percent of modelling in 3D is simply trying to figure out how to get the software to do what you want it to do and 123D has a very approachable interface. I do wish it allowed for a multiple window view to see top/side/front elevations of your object simultaneously.
123d_thingy
Anywho, I designed my widget to the best of my abilities, uploaded it to Shapeways, and ordered. Tada!

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It took about a week to manufacture for about $9 bucks before it shipped. And it fits!

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The mount snugly slides onto the iPhone and holds the lens without any glue or magnets. It’s a hair too tight on the phone itself, as I made the gap exactly the same thickness as the phone at 9.3mm without any leeway, but it has a strong grip. I’m a little concerned it’ll scratch the camera’s lens when sliding on and off. Then again, it’s already scratched up from riding around in my pocket for a couple years.

What no one tells you is that 3D printing is addictive, and designing practical solutions like this are a gateway drug towards making inane silly things.

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While looking around for free modelling software I found that Pixologic has a free version of its Zbrush software called Sculptris. Zbrush is different from most modelers in that it emulates sculpting in clay.  The resulting high-polygon meshes are very messy and complicated, which is problematic for animation and video games, but not for stationary figures. And Shapeways’ algorithms when you send them a 3D model are surprisingly forgiving when it comes to messy meshes.

That matters, because polygons by themselves are impossible objects; they are 2D objects suspended in 3D space.  Polygons have no thickness unto themselves (think papercraft but the paper is infinitely thin), so the 3D object only makes sense to the printers if the figure is completely closed, or “watertight,” thus simulating a solid object. Some of the models I uploaded to Shapeways were messy, but their robots are evidently smart enough to ignore and fix minor problems. Anyway, Sculptris is a lot of fun to tinker around with even if you have no background in modeling. It’s just digital Play-Doh.

The ultimate goal for me? An original, 3D printed tiki mug. So far I’m just experimenting and learning, but I’ll get there.

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