Triboelectric Ghost Hunting Device

Kenneth Biddle

Over the years, I’ve taken a closer look at various ghost hunting devices, from K2 EMF meters and the Xbox Kinect (Biddle 2017) to Maglite flashlights and repackaged cat toys (Biddle 2019). My process often involves breaking down the devices and taking them apart to see what is inside. This helps me gain a better understanding of how they work and the quality of the components. I then compare what I learn to the claims being made by the builder and/or seller, which most often includes communicating with or detecting ghosts. Most of the items I investigate are graciously donated to me by paranormal enthusiasts who no longer use the device and wish to know more about them. This is how a gadget called the Parascope 360 came into my possession.

I was contacted by a ghost hunter named Evelyn, who offered to donate two items that she had purchased for ghost hunting but found to be less than useful. She plainly stated she “spent some ridiculous amounts of money on some cool looking gadgets that have done absolutely nothing for me!” I agreed to take a closer look at the items, which cost over $400 in total: $130 for the Parascope 360 and $280 for the Gyroscope (Paranologies.com 2019). My first impression when I saw them echoed part of Evelyn’s statement; they did look cool. Both items had a sleek steampunk style, and the Parascope 360 resembled the Tom Servo character from Mystery Science Theater 3000. They are definitely objects I’d include in my collection of oddities (only because they were donated, otherwise they cost way too much).

After receiving the items, I posted an image on my blog of myself holding both devices. The builder/seller of the devices, Jeromy Jones, commented on my image, sternly stating “Unfortunately, I the creator of the devices and president of Paranologies, give you zero permission to post the insides of any of my creations. Contact me.” I contacted him, but the conversation was less than professional; he was aggressive and included the standard “contact my lawyer” threat. He also informed me that he had purchased the domain name IamKennyBiddle.com so he could have it forwarded to his website of overpriced, non-ghost detecting devices (which might be unlawful under U.S. law 15 U.S.C. § 1129 and Federal law 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d)). Jones even contacted the woman who sent me the devices, threatening some unspecified-but-grave legal action against her for simply donating the devices to me (of course after an item has been purchased the buyer has a right to keep, resell, destroy, or donate it as they wish). The level of unprofessionalism and childish behavior continued in multiple texts and a blog post that focused on yours truly. The reaction from Jones doesn’t show much confidence in his devices, which should be a red flag to anyone considering purchasing his gadgets. I did reach out to the lawyer he mentioned, Jared W. Julian, but received no response beyond the standard “Someone from our office will be in touch with you shortly” automatic reply. That was a few months ago (June 27). He originally claimed to have patented the device, but when I asked for the patent number he refused to provide it. I suspect few readers will be shocked to discover that he does not in fact have a patent on it. Moving on …

I focused on the Parascope 360, which is the more popular gadget with ghost-hunting teams (and highly requested by followers of my blog). The device is described on the Paranologies website as “The original custom built Triboelectric field meter ever introduced in the Paranormal field [sic] that visually follows static electricity fields horizontally [sic], allowing you to be informed of the direction the field is traveling. The unit visually alerts you using Green, Yellow, and red lights [sic] so you can see which side it travels from and the colors can be used for questions during EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) sessions.” I received the Steampunk version, which had the added description of “Steampunk: Dome has a removable light bulb that acts as the antenna and makes the 360 more sensitive. 360 is also painted with a Steampunk theme and bulb glows yellow.”

The device is promoted as a “Triboelectric field meter,” meaning that it is designed to indicate the presence of static charges. Triboelectricity refers to “the electrification of dissimilar objects or materials occurred due to the collision resulting in the phenomenal flow of electrons from one material to other balancing the potential difference. The process of rubbing materials against each other increase the surface contact producing an electric charge which is termed as triboelectric effect” (Tribonet.com 2019). In basic terms, it means when a static charge, such as that created when you run a comb through your hair, is brought close to it, the device will light up the acrylic rods (via LEDs). After charging a length of PVC with a wool glove, I found the device did light up the LEDs/acrylic rods. My inner child delighted in playing with the blinking lights for several minutes before I came to the sad realization that the device did nothing else. When the novelty wore off, I continued with my investigation.

I noticed there is a “reset” cycle with the LEDs. After waving the charged PVC around it and watching the LEDs dance around, there would be a varying time interval before the device would illuminate all the LEDs in sequence, one at a time and each side separately (there are two banks of LEDs controlled by separate chips/transistors). With the light bulb on top installed, this sequence happened very quickly. When the light bulb was removed, it took between several seconds to a few minutes for it to cycle through the LEDs (even doing that much slower). This is important to note, because I’ve come across YouTube videos that have mistaken this normal cycle phase for a “paranormal response” (see the link to Soul Guidance Paranormal 2018 in the references). Because the other (non-steampunk) version doesn’t have the additional bulb, the slower cycling could easily be mistaken for a “ghostly response” (it’s not).

The next step in my investigation was to see what made this device tick. I carefully pried the battery pack off the bottom, which allowed a view of the cluttered insides. The 3D-printed body is very sloppy on the inside, and the dome was very weak (I put my thumb through it simply by picking it up). There are also a few resistors, and a mess of wires packed inside.1 I also noticed two MPF102 semiconductors; junction Field-effect transistors (JFETs) connected to microchips (one each). However, due to the tightly packed space, I couldn’t see the top of the chips where the part number was located. Naturally, this led me to grab a small hacksaw and cut the case in half, skillfully avoiding any damage to the internal wiring, thus revealing the markings. The chips are LM3915 Dot/Bar display driver integrated circuits, which senses analog voltage levels and drives up to ten LEDs (Texas Instruments 2013).

Although I looked up the LM3915 and MPF102 components for their basic descriptions, I wasn’t sure how they worked within this circuit. Luckily my friend, Jonathan Vanover, a Doctor of Computer Science and Engineer, was following the bit of social media drama from the creator of the device and contacted me to offer his expertise. We spoke multiple times about the devices, so I was aware the circuit was based on an earlier design by William Beaty. Vanover provided links to video showing how to create a simple, single LED version of this device for under $10. I still struggled with the technical aspects, so I asked Vanover to explain. He kindly obliged:

The circuit used to detect changes in the static charge around the 360 Periscope is the same device used in many other paranormal devices and featured on several YouTube how-to videos I first noticed in 2012 (St. Clair 2012). The MPF-102 JFET Transistor is a semiconductor that is voltage controlled or reacts to changes in a voltage level, switching on and off to stop and start current flowing between the Drain and Source terminals when there is a negative Gate voltage. The current flow between the Source and Drain terminals is what provides the control for the LED lighting circuit. The 360 Periscope uses the LM3915 Dot/Bar Display Driver to display the varying voltage levels of the detected static charge. The 360 Periscope does not have the ability to detect and display the direction of the static charge so that part of the claim is false from the manufacturer. To do that feature would take a lot more circuitry and a microprocessor to process the input signals and provide the correct display. This circuit was called an electroscope, which was originally designed by William J. Beaty in 1987 and continues to be the basis for many designs of simple electric charge detectors.

How the circuit works is really simple: Voltage from static electricity is sensed by the MPF-102 JFET on the Gate terminal. This particular JFET’s default state is on and only turns off when the Gate voltage transitions from positive to negative. It is sensitive to negative static charges only so positive static charges do not activate the circuit. So, as a tool used for paranormal investigations it has limitations that are not stated by the manufacturer. For example it can only detect negative static electricity—the most common one generated by humans—therefore many false positives can be expected. These types of devices are better suited for standalone operation without any human presence in the room where they are deployed. When paired with a detector that can detect positive static charges, and connected to a data logger, they could potentially provide some useful environment data at an investigation site.

As the 360 Periscope is manufactured, it provides no useful information for serious paranormal research and is no more useful than a Ouija board or dowsing rods; at best this is a simple party or parlor entertainment device only. The total cost of building such a device is at most $40 to $50 so the manufacturer has a huge profit margin, which is probably why he wants to protect his unpatented technology from disclosure (Vanover 2019).

Now that I had a better understanding of how the circuit in the device operated, it was time to take a closer look at the claims, both direct and indirect. I headed back to the company website where it says the device “… visually follows static electricity fields horizontally, allowing you to be informed of the direction the field is traveling. The unit visually alerts you using Green, Yellow, and red lights so you can see which side it travels from …” (Paranologies.com. 2019). During simple testing with a length of PVC pipe, charged by friction contact with a wool glove, the device would illuminate random LEDs around both sides; sometimes on the same side as the PVC, sometimes on the opposite side. There were a few times when a single LED activated in the general direction of the PVC pipe, but this was not the norm. In addition, when the charged pipe was above or below (under the table), the device would continue to activate random LEDs. Despite the claim, this device did not “follow static electricity fields horizontally,” nor did it accurately indicate which side the static field was on. The truth of the matter is this claim simply can’t work. As Vanover indicated earlier, the device has no directional functionality; it simply doesn’t have the hardware to determine the direction of a static charge. This alone makes Parascope 360 no better than the simple, single-LED version you can make yourself for a few dollars.

There was an additional claim for the Steampunk version I had received: “Steampunk: Dome has a removable light bulb that acts as the antenna and makes the 360 more sensitive.” Using my PVC and wool glove, I created a charge and measured the distances with and without the bulb inserted. Held horizontally from the device, static charges were detected from about forty inches with or without the bulb in place. When the charges were held above or below (under a table), the distance was about thirty inches with the bulb and about twenty-four inches without the bulb. So although there is a slight difference in sensitivity, it really doesn’t matter in the end, because the device can’t determine which direction the static field came from.

Going back to the website, there were a few more claims that I wanted to address. One stated, “While Paranologies Test’s [sic] all its equipment with actual Paranormal Team’s [sic] with good results, this is in no way proof of detecting anything Paranormal. Any sensor used for a Paranormal Investigation can and will false. It is up to the User of the sensor to use control testing while looking for intelligent patterns before it may be deemed Paranormal” (Paranologies.com 2019). It’s good that he acknowledges that “this is in no way proof of detecting anything paranormal” and that any device “can and will false” (meaning to give a false-positive reading; Paranolgies.com 2019). Unfortunately, I think these statements will ultimately be ignored, because it is unusual to see paranormal teams employing scientific methodology or experimental controls during their ghost investigations.

I was interested in the tests mentioned in the above quote, conducted by “actual paranormal teams with good results.” I think such data would be interesting to comb through to see why this device would be deemed useful. I once again went through the Paranologies website but was unable to locate anything concerning experiments, controls, methodology, results, etc. There was no data to be found. What I did find was a page titled Focus Groups, which stated in the headline “These group’s [sic] have used and tested our equipment with great results and have proven to us that they can perform the testing needed to keep our equipment on track with the Scientific Method (emphasis added) needed to further Paranormal Research across the world” (Paranologies.com 2019). The list consisted of thirty-two paranormal groups; I went through every single one. Fourteen of the groups had broken links or did not exist anymore, and one belonged to Jones, the guy who built and sold the devices (and was nothing more than a form to fill out if you wanted an investigation from him). Of the remaining seventeen groups, only three had mentioned owning devices from Paranologies; none had any references to testing or published data on any devices from this company.

The last claim I’m going to address is a subtle one that appears on the webpages for both devices I was sent: “Take it to an investigation, set it on the floor at least 3-5 feet away, and ask questions. You will be amazed on [sic] the responses you get if its [sic] indeed a haunted location” (Paranologies.com 2019). This is an indirect claim, because it doesn’t state specifically that you’ll get responses from ghosts. Instead, it claims you’ll be amazed if you’re actually in a haunted location. To me, this means that ghosts can interact with the device in response to questions. Despite their being no actual evidence that ghosts exist whatsoever, I decided to see if this device would amaze me.

I took it to a location with a well-known reputation for being haunted, the White Hill Mansion in Fieldsboro, New Jersey. The location is frequented by paranormal groups and is the home of an EVP Challenge I developed with Tim Vickers (Biddle 2018). There are many groups that have claimed paranormal experiences, so I’m pretty sure this location would qualify as “haunted” (if indeed it is). I arranged to have the access to the mansion for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon and methodically set up the devices (both the Parascope 360 and Gyroscope) in various rooms throughout the mansion. As per the instructions, I stayed three to five feet away and began asking questions. As a courtesy (in case any technologically challenged ghosts there wanted to make their presence known), I explained how a spirit might manipulate the devices to make them light up, even demonstrating the process with my PVC pipe and wool glove. After two hours and across eight different rooms throughout the mansion (even set up next to creepy dolls!), I reluctantly noted my distinct and utter lack of amazement.

This device, and others built on the same design, are novelty items. Its purpose—for ghosts to manipulate via static electricity—isn’t based on any science whatsoever. Like so many other ghost hunting devices (EMF meters, REM Pods, etc.), this is the equivalent of tossing a bunch of lawn darts into the air and hoping one will land in the target circle that isn’t anywhere to be found. In addition, because these devices can only detect negative static electricity (which as Vanover reminds us is the most common one generated by humans), you can bet there will be many false readings attributed to ghosts. As Ben Radford, author of Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, notes “Until someone can reliably demonstrate that ghosts have certain measurable characteristics, devices that measure those characteristics are irrelevant” (Radford 2010). Although some of the designs look cool and stylish, these devices are simply not worth the price tag and fail to provide any contribution to an investigation of alleged paranormal phenomenon.

Strictly as a novelty, some good did come out of this project; I often attend paranormal conferences and thought this might be a good way to raise money for a good cause. I got together with Jonathan Vanover, who volunteered his time and parts to build a few of the electric charge detectors (called electroscopes). He then put the electroscopes into a high quality, 3D-printed ghost figure (Desktop Makes 2018). I took the electroscopes to two paranormal conferences and sold raffle tickets, making everyone fully aware that our devices were not ghost detectors but instead merely novelty items. All the money we collected, which totaled $325, was donated to the Cancer Research Institute.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Jonathan Vanover in providing his knowledge in electronics and for donating his time and parts to create the novelty devices, which raised money for cancer research.

 


Note

  1. The device I was working with may have been an older model. The builder sent me an angry message and an image of a newer model that had a circuit board installed internally. Sadly, he also accused me of removing a circuit board from the device and putting in the contents seen in the photograph above. I can assure you, what you see in the image is exactly what I saw after removing the battery pack.

References