Cell phones today can do almost anything, from playing movies to turning on vehicles remotely.

Now a group of college students says it has figured out how to turn smart phones into virtual microscopes that can detect malaria from a digital snapshot of a patient’s blood sample.

“It sounds crazy, I know,” said Tristan Gibeau, the University of Central Florida graduate student who developed the software. “But with the technology we have, it’s very possible, and I love the idea of being able to make a difference in the world.”

Instead of placing a blood sample under a microscope in a lab, a doctor or nurse working in remote parts of Africa would simply snap a picture of the sample with a cell phone camera. Then an image analysis algorithm – devised as a phone app that Gibeau created – calculates and detects where the malaria clusters are based on blood cells’ location and staining.

The only special preparation a field doctor would have to do is place a drop of a dye that stains for the malaria parasite in the blood sample – the same way it’s done in a lab.

But this digital method is less complicated than the tests available now, said Wilson To, a University of California at Davis student and the brainchild behind the project, which is a finalist in Microsoft’s 2011 Imagine Cup competition.

The international competition challenges students to use their imaginations along with the latest technology to solve global problems. The yearlong contest concludes in July with more than 70,000 students competing in the World Finals .

The winning team receives money to develop their product and potentially take it to market.

“When my team went to World Finals last year in Poland, I saw that there are a lot of problems in the world, especially health issues with children,” said To, who is working toward his doctorate degree in comparative pathology. “Malaria in particular is causing a lot of problems. After some research, I came up with this idea. I knew I needed a programmer. So I went to Tristan. He’s the best programmer I know.”

The team’s name is LifeLens. The other members are: Cy Khormaee of the Harvard Business School; Jason Wakizaka, a UCF graduate now at the UCLA Anderson School of Management; and Helena Xu with the financial giant UBS.

To provided the biological expertise, while Gibeau cracked the software challenge. Other team members helped developed the lens, the interface needed, the presentation and the marketing plan. They all share the hope that this device will help those who need it most.

“I envision field doctors using this in remote areas where people really need help,” Gibeau said. “And I can adapt the software to run on pretty much any platform and to potentially detect other conditions like anemia.”

Another bonus to promoting global health is that because cell phones have GPS, those using this system could potentially detect outbreaks early.

The team is asking for the public’s help as the national competition comes to a head April 8 to 11. Aside from the grand prize, there is a People’s Choice Award, which the team is eyeing to grab. Anyone can vote for the team once a day via Facebook or by texting “LIFELENS” to 23000.

“I hope the UCF community helps us,” said Gibeau, who expects to graduate in May with a master’s in Computer Engineering. He hopes to be able to trade in his job at the campus computer store for a research and development position at a big company. “I think mobile development is the future, and it has the greatest potential to change lives. That’s exciting to me.”

To vote for LifeLens visit https://www.facebook.com/MicrosoftUCF

Or text “LIFELENS” to 23000. Voting ends Sunday, April 10.