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Orbs, or a load of balls?

The revolution in digital imaging has brought about another far more intriguing revolution within the field of paranormal research & investigation.

Since the mid 1990's, we have seen a huge increase in the number of digital cameras and a range of 'nightvision' video cameras developed by Sony. Paranormal investigators using these new tools started to notice a phenomenon almost unknown on images taken on film cameras and conventionally lit video footage, they christened this new phenomenon the 'ORB'.
In the past 3 years we have seen literally thousands of these Orbs and many paranormal investigators claim that they are 'The first stage of a ghost manifestation', others claim that the Orbs are images of the ghostly spirits themselves and can see faces within them. It is even said that the Orbs exhibit intelligence and they have been captured moving in a controlled manner.

Para.Science has also observed and recorded these Orbs and over the past 5 years have extensively studied the phenomenon in order to try and understand exactly what it is that they represent. Are they the ghostly forms of the dead revealed with the help of modern technology or are they something much less paranormal but nonetheless intriguing. The truth lies somewhere in between and we hope that as a result of our own and others careful research and good experimentation it is possible to solve some of the riddles and mystique that surround this frequently observed anomaly.

But first a little history [and some techie talk too!] Although developed earlier the first commercial digital cameras started to appear in large numbers during the second half of the 1990's. They were expensive and of poor quality compared to their modern counterparts and even the cheapest 35mm compact 'point and shoot' camera of that time. At the same time, the same technology allowed the production of smaller, lighter and cheaper video cameras and soon these began to hit the high street stores in large numbers, with a feature straight out of Operation Desert Storm - Nightvision, the ability to see and record pictures in complete darkness. The reason for both these technical breakthroughs was the same, the imaging chip that they both used - the Charge Coupled Device or CCD.

The CCD was developed originally for use in Astronomical telescopes and spy satellites and uses the principle of many individual light sensitive photodiodes in a silicon matrix, each photodiode or pixel producing an electrical charge when it is exposed to light.
Small and relatively simple to manufacture the CCD allowed the production of affordable consumer devices to be made by the million. Another form of silicon chip imaging device the CMOS chip can also be used for the same purposes but it is today mainly only used for low resolution images such as in cheap CCTV systems and webcams and for the purposes of this discussion will be treated the same as the CCD.

To all intents and purposes a digital still camera is nothing more than a video camera that captures single images to its memory instead of a continuous stream of information to a tape or DVD. Although the CCD is capable of producing excellent quality video pictures their use in still cameras was greatly restricted at first by the small amount of image information that the early CCD's were capable of registering simply because of their small size, typically a 1/3rd of an inch across.
For a TV picture the resolution does not need to be much above 240 lines of horizontal resolution to produce a perfectly watchable picture - this is the resolution of standard VHS videotape. In a still image this level of detail would produce a fuzzy and poorly resolved image that most people would reject as unsuitable, comparative to a computer webcam today. The resolution could only be improved by making larger CCD's with more pixels and that meant an increase in the size of the chip itself and much bigger production costs. In spy satellites and large telescopes the physical size of the Hi-Res CCD's could be accommodated and a military or academic budget could more easily absorb the huge costs involved with these Hi-Res devices, the average consumer unless a lottery winner or famous Scouse Psychic could not.

However, as with all consumer electronics, technological developments soon allowed small Hi-Res CCD's to become affordable for all and today we have still cameras with between 1 and 5 million pixels in a silicon matrix the size of a postage stamp. Professional digital cameras currently have up to 14 million pixels. That may sound a lot and it certainly offers fantastic picture quality but to put it into perspective a single 35mm film frame on the cheapest disposable camera has the equivalent of more than 30 million pixels!

The CCD also had some other problems that needed to be resolved before commercial digital photography and video became a viable proposition. One of these was the way the CCD responded to light. They were for example especially sensitive to Infra-Red [IR] light and this resulted in strange colour casts on the photographs, nobody would be happy if Auntie Nellie had purple hair and grass appeared white - unless of course Auntie was a Punk Rocker or you were one of those people who smoke the grass, regardless of it's colour! Special electronic and optical filtering was required to remove this colour abnormality but one day to the eternal joy of the paranormal investigator Sony launched a range of domestic video cameras that allowed this IR filtering to be turned off by the user, this allowed the camera to see in near total darkness.
The CCD can also be made to perform in very low levels of light using electronic amplification circuits and although the resultant images were grainy, the simple addition of a pair of IR LED's below the lens has meant that recently generations of innocent badgers can now be spied upon without them ever knowing!

Shortly after the first Nightshot Camcorders hit the shops in the late 1990's the headlines of the Daily Blurb were filled with horror stories of these new camcorders' ability to see through clothing - a neat trick that only required a cheap filter over the camera's lens. Before you all rush out to buy one it must be pointed out that all camcorders made within the past 3 years have lost this ability and also the cost of the filters has shot through the roof! - That particular feature was never that good anyway.... Paranormal Investigators also realised that at last they too could capture moving images in the dark - which is of course where ghosts perform at their best!
Early Nightvision camcorders cost more than £1,000, recent models now start at less than £300 and other manufacturers are either licensing the technology from Sony or finding their own ways to allow their camcorders to also see in the dark. Some of these other methods are more effective than others and today Sony has the best consumer nightvision facility of all the various manufacturers. Indeed, this ability is good enough to ensure it used by many TV programme makers.

The digital still camera has also taken off with sales now outstripping conventional film, virtually all are small and straightforward to use. With a few exceptions they are more closely related to the 35mm point and shoot compact camera in their range of functions and capabilities. These new digital cameras allow just about everyone to take a picture and with a home PC produce a decent set of holiday snaps instantly - in fact nowadays you don't even need a PC, printing direct from the camera is available on every high street. With its inbuilt flash and complex software taking care of everything, all you have to worry about these days is to keep from cutting off Auntie Nellie's head complete with fashionable Purple Rinse!

The Early Orbs

Para.Science were probably not the first to discover the Orb anomaly that was about to burst upon the scene, but as early users of digital cameras and nightvision videos we had come across them before they became the latest craze to sweep the paranormal world.
During 1998, as part of a long-term investigation at Ellesmere Port's Boat Museum, we took a series of pictures using an 800,000 pixel digital camera that stored the pictures onto a removable floppy disc. The pictures were taken following an alarm from an Electromagnetic Field [EMF] meter. The pictures were taken in the dark using flash and later when viewing the images we noticed something unexpected and not seen before. A number of circular light anomalies could be seen close to the area where the EMF detector had sounded an alarm to indicate the presence of a higher than normal electromagnetic field.
In a sequence of three pictures taken over 10 seconds one of these light anomalies appeared to have travelled an estimated distance of more than 20ft - to say we were impressed would be about right! During the course of the night and previously, more than 200 digital stills had been taken at the same location, only a handful showed these balls of light and most of those were the ones taken in response to the EMF alarm.

The pictures were enhanced and analysed using specialised software developed and written for us, the software permitted us to undertake meaningful image analysis. The results showed that the light anomalies were not the result of any camera or imaging faults. The fact that the EMF alarm had sounded at the same time convinced us that we were perhaps seeing something that may turn out to be paranormal but more work would certainly be needed. The pictures and a full description of the events were sent to Sony UK for their comments and they confirmed that the camera was not at fault - these 'Lightballs' as we christened them could not be easily explained.
A few weeks later, at a different location in an old school we came across a similar phenomenon -the EMF detector was placed close to where many witnesses had reported a ghostly figure. After several hours the audible alarm on the EMF meter sounded and number of digital pictures were once again taken in response. Again, we discovered 'Lightballs' on the digital pictures - this time using a Fuji 1 million pixel [mega pixel] camera. This time we also had a nightvision camcorder placed to observe the same area. Playing back the videotape revealed a moving ball of light that quickly moved into the frame as the EMF alarm could be heard sounding on the audio track. The 'Lightball' appeared to stop, then change direction rapidly before exiting the bottom of the frame.

Three separate items of equipment had apparently recorded the same event and at the same time. After careful scrutiny we felt we had compelling evidence for something very unusual taking place and beyond all our attempts at a reasonable explanation at that time.

We placed the evidence online whilst we continued to try and devise some experiments to understand what we were seeing. A group in the USA using nearly identical equipment contacted us, they also had pictures of these 'Lightballs' but no video footage at that time. It seemed a good idea for both groups to work together on trying to discover more about this phenomenon. They also found that sometimes high EMF levels were present coincident with the Lightballs and later on had a lot of success capturing the balls of light on Nightvision video. Over the next few months we shared regular email correspondence with them and we jointly set about devising various means of discovering more about these light anomalies. Some statistical studies were carried using the internet to speed up the information gathering process to try and determine just how likely a camera was to produce a 'Lightball' in a picture. Para.Science spent many hours studying the 'Lightballs' with it's analyser software measuring them, looking at the colour, the colour temperature, the density; in fact anything we could think of to try and learn anything we could about them.

We had up till now also been carrying out some basic research into possible links between EMF and the paranormal, this was building upon the work of lab based parapsychologists such as Dr. Michael Persinger and others who suggested from their own research that strong or varying EM Fields may be responsible for some or many of the paranormal experiences that people had.
Our original encounters with 'Lightballs' had suggested that they might be in some way connected with an EMF anomaly as our EMF detector had indicated an unusual EM Field strength at the same time as the balls of light were seen.

One of the things we did discover is that the 'Lightballs' seemed to be reflective; they gave off light with characteristics very similar to either the flash light on the camera or in the IR part of the spectrum - around 680nm that was used by the IR LED's to illuminate the scene in front of the camcorder. If the 'Lightballs' had emitted their own illumination we should have expected that it should be of a different colour or colour temperature to the light emitted by the camera. 

Orbs, The Next Generation

As the months passed, more and more paranormal investigators and groups started to use digital cameras and nightvision videos in support of their own investigations. We noticed that other groups were also finding these 'Lightballs' in fact they were becoming almost a common occurrence. They gained a new name too - from the USA where groups had started to refer to them as 'Orbs'. As the number of Orbs went up - a number of theories about what they could be abounded on the Internet. Many believed that they were direct evidence for ghostly manifestations, the first stage of the appearance of a ghost. Some thought them to be a visualisation of Poltergeist activity. Others believed them to be Angels and could even tell the sex of them by looking at the colour of the Orb - naturally, Pink for a Girl and blue for a Boy! Faces were seen in the Orbs and they moved about in a controlled and intelligent way responding to the investigators requests for them to perform!

Of all these characteristics a few did seem to be provable, a feature common to most if not quite all of them; they only appeared when the digital camera was using its in built flash, they only appeared when the IR nightvision mode was being used on the camcorder and they rarely appeared in flash pictures taken using film cameras and to date we have never discovered an Orb in video footage shot in normal lighting conditions. This finding also strongly supports our own analysis findings that the Orbs were reflective bodies - returning the light from its source on the camera, either the flash tube or the IR LED's. This is a function of the design of most cameras that are small and by necessity have the illumination very close to the lens axis, this is also a major reason for Red-Eye that ruins so many indoor photographs. For viewers of TV's Mostly Haunted the same effect can be seen when Derek and other members of the crew develop glowing demonic eyes when they are shooting scenes in nightvision. The Orbs were most often circular in shape - hence their name, although there was no evidence to suggest that they were 3 dimensional. Many other shapes were also noted, these included; rods, blobs and some that looked like amoeba!

With so many Orbs being reported we were still undecided about the true nature of these Orbs - they were certainly intriguing but by now they were just too commonly reported and that disturbed us greatly.
If they were paranormal, then how could they be so common, was the CCD, the device that lead to development of the digital camera and nightvision video the breakthrough tool that paranormal investigators had longed for - just about everyone with a digital camera were capturing Orbs. They appeared in haunted locations, they appeared in non-haunted locations, they appeared both indoors and outside, there was something terribly wrong - this surely couldn't be paranormal, there were just too many Orbs out there!

Just how many Orbs? We decided to try and see just how likely a digital camera was to capture an Orb and so after much thought a simple experiment was devised. We would also try and establish if any particular makes and models were more or less likely to capture an Orb. Using the Internet we obtained 1,000 digital pictures from each of the major digital camera makers - Sony, Nikon, Kodak, Fuji etc. This was easy given that makers had a different file naming protocol for their camera pictures such as MVC123.jpg for Sony for example.

A straightforward but time consuming affair, within a month and after downloading more than 10,000 pictures we had the first results. We found that Orbs appeared almost at random in every sort of location - most of which never had any association with the paranormal or had to our knowledge been reported as haunted. The vast majority of the Orbs did not even warrant a mention by the picture takers either going unnoticed or ignored.
Those with a Fuji or Kodak camera had the greatest chance of producing an Orb - almost 20% of the pictures taken with these makes showing an Orb.
If you owned a Canon or Nikon model you stood around a 1 in 20 chance of an Orb appearing in the final picture.
Later, this experiment was repeated with a larger sample and taking into consideration the exact model of the camera and the r results were again quite clear.

The cheaper the camera, irrespective of manufacturer, the more likely it was an Orb would be captured. Likewise, the physically smaller the camera, the more likely it would be to photograph an Orb; irrespective of its cost.

Because Orbs were so common we had to face an unusual possibility - if Orbs were indeed the first stage of a ghostly manifestation then perhaps ghosts were a very common phenomenon, just that up until now we just had been unable to see them!

Again, we extended our Internet based study to see if we could discover just how often Orbs were being reported in association with haunted locations. This time we only looked at pictures containing Orbs - more than 5,000 of them but it was quickly clear that they were just as likely to appear in a non haunted location as a haunted one.

It was starting to look suspiciously like these Orbs were nothing more than the camera seeing something 'normal' but in an unusual way. Already, many people had frequently suggested dust as a possible culprit of the Orbs.

Other groups too were also beginning to question the Orb phenomenon - a small number of experimenters had thrown and blown dust or powder in front of cameras with convincing results. We ourselves had conducted similar experiments with flour, talc and other small particles. When caught in the flash they gave convincing Orbs that looked exactly like those seen in many of the pictures we looked at. Outdoors, in even slightly misty conditions a flash picture could produce tens and even hundreds of Orbs. Rain produced a smaller number of Orbs per picture, in the order of between 2 and 20.

The experiments also produced some unexpected results - often a large quantity of powder was thrown in front of the camera as the flash was fired and the picture taken but on the resultant picture only one or two Orbs would be seen. When taking pictures of almost invisible mist often the picture would be filled with dozens of Orbs. We were expecting the opposite case to be true - a large amount of dust or powder should produce a lot of Orbs and a few sparse water droplets should produce fewer Orbs.

A series of emails to a University Optical Lab later and we had the answers we needed and a satisfactory explanation to this particular conundrum. Dust particles are not very reflective so not many of the dust particles reflect the light from the flash back to the camera. Water droplets are however like minute spherical mirrors - like cats eyes in the road and many more reflect the flash burst back to the camera. The range of the flash, typically around 6ft and the angle between the particle or droplet and the lens also affected the number of Orbs that were produced. To make the best Orbs the particles / droplets should be close to the camera where the lighting is the strongest and also they should be within 15 degrees or so of the lens's central axis. This clearly demonstrated why the number of Orbs seen in a picture often bore little relationship to the actual amount of dust particles or water vapour droplets in the air.

We also wrote to several of the camera manufacturers and also to the makers of the imaging CCD's. We discovered that the way the CCD sees the world is very different from the way we see it or a film camera sees it. We already knew about the IR sensitivity of the CCD and we also discovered that they are more sensitive to UV light too. All CCD's rely on software to actually construct the image from the millions of individual pixels and in consumer cameras this software needed to 'compress' the raw data in order to get enough pictures onto the storage media or memory This compression ratio and also the software compression algorithms varied not only from different makers but also even across the maker's own range of products.

A 3 megapixel CCD actually captures less than 10% of the total image information available within a scene when compared with a 35mm camera negative. The software has to 'fill in' these gaps in the image by making comparisons with the information from neighbouring pixels, thus a single pin point of light in a scene may be ignored completely or seen and then 'expanded' by the software as it compares and interpolates each pixel with it's neighbours - the single point source of light becoming a gradually larger and fainter circle of light - giving the characteristic circular Orb anomaly. The CCD also had a further trick to play - sometimes individual photodiodes may not respond correctly to the light falling on them sending a signal that is either 100% on or 100% off - again, the software would 'expand' these white specs into circular Orbs - Black Orbs, caused by the 100% 'off state' are also possible and are seen, but only rarely as they tend to blend into the background of the image more quickly.

So, that was that - Orbs were nothing more than microscopic dust and water vapour droplets reflecting back the light of the flash that was often too close to the lens axis - Orbs were in fact dust and water suffering with Red Eye, like those pictures of a Demonic Auntie Nellie with her glowing red eyes and purple hair!

The mechanism that caused Orbs to appear on digital pictures also applied to those being seen on the Nightvision video footage. This time the cause was the two Infra Red LED's mounted just beneath the lens on every model. These acted exactly like mini headlights, sending an IR beam out to about 6ft in front of the camcorder.

One attempt to try and capture these Video Orbs to order took place whilst filming a documentary on ghosts for a Japanese TV Company. In one particular room we could see a literal 'blizzard' of dust Orbs moving past the IR CCTV camera as we watched from the control room on a monitor. We set off armed with a nightvision camcorder and two-way radios to try and capture them for ourselves. The controller talked us into the Orbs as he watched them on his screen. We hunted for some time in vain for the Orbs he could see. Our theory that Orbs were dust was falling in tatters around us, we moved closer and closer to the actual CCTV camera that was 'seeing' them. When we got less than a foot away from it we found our prey - the Orbs were there in quantity but could only be seen within a foot of his CCTV camera because its IR LED's surrounding the lens were not very powerful and were not capable of lighting up the dust particles more than this distance away. Our own failure to see them initially was also compounded by us using a more powerful IR light but one that was mounted high above the camcorder on an extension bracket thus taking the light further away from the lens axis and thus preventing reflected light bouncing back into the lens. Later when we removed this light and went back to the pair of IR LED's below the lens on the body of the camcorder, we saw Orbs a plenty!

The moving Orbs seen on the nightvision video are simply the result of the camcorder capturing a moving image of the dust or water droplets as they get carried past by the slight currents of moving air that are always present within a building.

The videos sometimes showed faster moving Orbs that performed aerobatic manoeuvres. They were as claimed under intelligent control, but, in these cases they were explainable by the fact that many buildings are inhabited by almost microscopic flying insects that survive all year round due to factors such as central heating and the milder winters. An evening spent in a haunted building with some flypaper and a UV Insect acuter soon proved they existed.
The other interesting group of Orbs could be seen to 'sparkle' or flash as they past through the picture, the answer was again straightforward, these particles were simply of a more facetted shape and as they spun and tumbled in the air currents, different surfaces reflected the light back to the camera with more or less intensity.

As far as we were concerned that was the end of the Orb, although it was with growing frustration that we watched as others continued to call them Ghostly Manifestations - a fact that was compounded further by TV shows like Most Haunted on Living TV and groups set up in its wake who clung to the beliefs that Orbs were paranormal.
Our frustration drove us to try and change this misconception by publishing the results of our research in the hope of at least converting a few to the truth.

We decided to take another look at our research just to double check what we were about to say. We had an extensive database of Orbs - more than 20,000 images still stored on CD's and this information had also been written into our software image analyser programme, so that we could quickly compare new suspect images with the stored data to see if they were dust, water etc.

What we found when we reviewed all this work came as a bit of a shock - we discovered some Orbs that were dramatically different to the majority - both on quick glance and also to the analyser itself which only rated them around 20 or 30% 'the same' as the dust and water Orbs.
This was something that had been overlooked during the earlier experiments due to the sheer number of images that we looked at.
Furthermore, these 'unusual' Orbs seemed to only be seen in pictures taken in the most haunted parts of a haunted location - in fact that's only were we saw them and these Orbs were extremely rare too - about 1 in every 1,000 Orb pictures and less than 1 in every 100 Orbs photographed in haunted locations!

Was there another type of Orb that we had overlooked, what was its cause and why was it only seen in association with reported ghostly or paranormal phenomena?

We looked at these Orbs minutely with the software but try as we might we could not see anything that gave us any clues as to what they may be. They were almost perfectly circular in outline. They were much brighter and denser than the ones we knew to be dust or water and they all seemed to have a rainbow halo surrounding the denser core. Snowflakes were the most similar objects to these unusual Orbs 50 - 60 % similar by the analyser, which meant they were not snowflakes! And you don't get snow indoors in the heat of midsummer...unless you live in one of those large indoor ski centres!

We then recalled the original Orbs seen at the Boat Museum back in 1998 and later at the school, when the EMF alarm sounded to indicate a high EMF value in the area when the 'Lightballs' were originally seen for the first time.
The files were dug out of storage and compared using the software, the results were then calibrated to allow for the fact that the original Lightball pictures had been taken by a camera with less than 20% of the resolution of a modern digital camera and we got figures of more than 80% similarity between the originals and the new suspect Orbs. The same test was repeated for the pictures taken at the old school that had also showed Orbs on both the still and video pictures. This time the Orbs did not have the characteristics of the suspect Orbs and they remained classified under the particle / droplet heading. The moving Orbs were simply the result of moving currents of air and in one case an insect. To date we have no definite explanation for the EMF alarm but some months later we did discover some faulty electrical equipment in a locked room cupboard nearby that from time to time caused a similar high EMF transient reading.

In Conclusion

So, perhaps after all, there really is a phenomenon that can be seen by the digital camera that may ultimately have a cause that cannot be explained and thus will be paranormal, if there is it is extremely rare - less than 0.01% of all the Orb pictures we've looked at over the years - we still only have less than a dozen examples on record and all in places where ghostly activity has been reported. If there is a genuine Paranormal Orb it was very nearly lost and buried forever under a mountain of look-alikes caused by microscopic dust and water vapour droplets.

One possible explanation may lie with a phenomenon that has been known about and reported for more than 150 years, The Ghost Light.

They are defined as a luminous phenomenon usually in the shape of balls or irregular patches of light. Reported around the World they defy explanation. They appear randomly at particular sites and may be active for years or become dormant then reactivate some years later. Ghost lights are widely reported throughout the World including Britain, Japan and the USA.

Characteristics of Ghost Lights:
They appear in haunted locations.
They are elusive and can only be seen from certain angles and distances.
They appear to react to noise and light.
They are most frequently seen with hauntings that involved a tragedy.

Does that sound familiar?

Whatever the ultimate truth turns out to be, Paranormal or just plain normal, Para.Science will continue to hunt for the truth, the search for the origins of the Orb have crossed over into other ongoing experiments that are looking into the links between Electromagnetic Field Radiation and the paranormal - it looks increasingly like all these once disparate strands of research and experimentation are slowly coming together - Perhaps one day they will coincide and we will have an answer to whether Orbs are real or just a load of balls!!!!!!!

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