Image in Under 3 Minutes. Anywhere.

 

AFMs no longer need to be complicated machines that are controlled by overwhelming and confusing client softwares. The philosophy that runs through nGauge’s every design step is simplicity and accessibility all without compromise on the conventional and advanced capabilities of an AFM. The client software used to control nGauge and acquire images is no exception. In this blog post, we will discuss some of the design decisions surrounding the client software and describe how it’s possible to take an image in under three minutes using it.

 

The client software

The nGauge client software is a graphical user interface (GUI) that has been developed in-house to address all the needs of novice and advanced AFM users alike. Before implementing the software, we specified the following design goals:

  • Cross-platform - supporting all major operating systems

  • Fast and efficient back-end design - capable of handling high speed USB communication, essential for high-speed AFM

  • Simple and intuitive front-end design - the piece of software the user interacts with

  • Streamlined flow - capable of acquiring images without overwhelming the user

  • Easy integration with post-processing software

  • Extensible software - to allow for other modes of imaging such as friction, contact, and one that we are currently working on, scanning thermal microscopy (SThM).

Based on these general design specifications, the client software was developed in Qt, a proven framework for creating cross-platform GUIs. Consequently, the software supports all major operating systems: Windows, OS X, and Linux. Qt applications are developed in the C++ programming language which is efficient and fast, making the back-end software lightweight and capable of processing high-speed USB payloads. High speed means less time waiting for an image to come in and even the possibility of video rate nanoscale images.

The front-end portion of the software is developed based on web technologies, a well established set of tools that make the interaction with the user seamless. We put extra emphasis on the layout and general feel of the software. The goal was to move away from “lab-software-like” user interfaces where all inputs, buttons, and graphs tend to be laid out on a single page, introducing a steep learning curve and often leading to confusion. Below is a side-by-side comparison of a typical lab software and the nGauge client interface.

A typical lab software

A typical lab software

The nGauge client software showing the approach step

The nGauge client software showing the approach step

 

Ease of Use

While nGauge has many advanced AFM capabilities we would love our users exploring, we aimed to simplify and automate the imaging process. We narrowed down the whole imaging experience to three easy steps:

  1. Sweep - finds the resonance of the system

  2. Automated Approach - brings the sample and the tip close to each other

  3. Scan - acquires an image based on resolution desired

Below is a video that shows the client software in action. We go from installing the chip and placing the sample to imaging in under three minutes. Once the scan is complete, the image can be saved and drag-and-dropped onto a post-processing software (such as the open-source Gwyddion software shown at the end of the video).

 

It is important to point out that the software is not limited to these three actions; advanced options are conveniently accessible at every step and only shown when the user wants finer control over the process (e.g., changing controller parameters, changing operating frequency, etc). Further, the software engages the user by embedding the instructions in related pages. No need to read a lengthy hard-copy manual before getting started!


To determine the ease of use (and resolve any potential hiccups), we invited numerous AFM and non-AFM users to take an image using the client software. We were thrilled to see that with very little instruction everyone was able to navigate the software and take an AFM image. We even took some AFMs to a high school where students took images of various samples (look out for an upcoming blog on this). To top it off, we had a 10 year old budding scientist get an image, she was looking at DVD bits in no time!

 

Open-Source

We have decided to freely share the source code of the client software, which we will support, continue to develop, and strive to improve. Why open-source? To promote openness and encourage anyone interested in changing the behaviour or extending the functionalities to do so freely (for example, acquiring customized surface roughness measurements). Under the licence, anyone can modify, use, and distribute without needing permission from ICSPI.


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