clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ghosts in the machine? Using the Kinect to hunt for spirits

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The room is completely dark, save for the soft light of a computer monitor.

A solitary man stands in the middle of the old, musty foyer, surrounded by an audience of several ancient pieces of furniture. The silence is oppressive.

Through the computer monitor, another man — another paranormal investigator — watches a stick-figure representation of his colleague. At first it's just the one body, a fluorescent green collection of sticks meant to represent human legs and arms. Then without warning, a second, smaller figure pops into view.

The man in the room is still alone, but this second tiny figure moves across the screen, seemingly reaching out to touch the man's own, corporeal figure. Then it blinks out of existence.

If you've seen the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, you've seen this experiment before: A Kinect, Microsoft's camera peripheral that adds motion and voice control to the Xbox console family, is used to look beyond the veil, modified to capture images of what many believe to be spirits.

"Ever since the release of the Kinect motion sensor controllers in 2010, gamers have been posting videos of 'Kinect Ghosts' detected by their Xbox 360," reads a blog post on the subject from the League of Occult Research and Education, an Olympia, Washington-based group dedicated to studying the paranormal. "The Kinect prompts you when a new person is in the room, a phenomena [sic] dismissed as a glitch by most users if they're alone. However there are hundreds of videos on youtube of not only 'someone not there' being detected, but these 'ghosts' also using the motion controller to operate the system."

Is the Kinect sensitive enough to capture a spirit?

A quick YouTube search of "Kinect ghosts" yields a surprising number of results. Xbox users believing their camera has latched onto something otherworldly is seemingly common. Users have reported ghost stories involving games like Dance Central and the Xbox One UI picking up a second person in the room when they were alone.

One such video features an Xbox One player unnerved by the system registering a human form in the empty space beside him. Another video shows an investigator calling out to the space next to her, only to have a small child-sized figure appear with joint points that constantly change position (shown below). It's extremely eerie and more than a little unsettling, especially when your knowledge of how the hardware actually works can't explain away the phenomenon.

People claim these "ghosts" have successfully manipulated the Xbox system into making their presence known, while others have dismissed the odd occurrence as glitches. But just how reliable is this piece of hardware in picking up spirits?

How is it supposed to work?

The Kinect — compatible with Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows in its various forms — allows players to use motion controls to navigate the console's menus and play games. The camera is used to track player movement for titles like Just Dance and Fantasia: Music Evolved, while voice recognition technology allows players to vocally execute commands instead of pushing a button.

Now in its second generation, the Kinect has had many upgrades. It's now capable of near-instantaneous recognition of a person entering its field of view. It can even detect body heat, changes in facial expression and measure heart rates.

According to Microsoft, the latest iteration of Kinect for Windows can track up to six people at once, tracing each figure with up to 25 points. This improved skeletal tracking system, according to Microsoft, allows for readings that are "more anatomically correct and stable — and the range of tracking is broader." The new Kinect can even capture movement in pitch-black darkness and includes infrared capabilities that make "computer-vision-based tasks much easier."

But is the Kinect system actually sensitive enough to capture a spirit? You know, entities without solid, physical mass? In the movie Paranormal Activity 4, one character tweaks a Kinect to outwardly display the grid of tracking dots used to catch body movement. This allows the camera's lasers to detect and vividly display sudden movements — in the case of the movie, a misty mass of CGI ghost whooshing through the room.

Polygon contacted Microsoft to find out how the company views its hardware being put to such a purpose. Microsoft declined to comment.

Paranormal groups like the Pennsylvania Paranormal Association — a team that has taken on dozens of documented cases — take a scientific approach to their investigations. These teams commonly use video and night-vision cameras to record any unexplained physical activity and digital voice recorders to capture "electronic voice phenomenon," or EVPs (an EVP is the standard term for a recorded voice that is believed to have come from a ghost). Recently, more groups have adopted the use of thermal imaging cameras and Spirit Boxes, handheld radios that sweep through frequencies at a rapid pace that investigators believe allow spirits to easily form words and speak aloud.

In the hands of a ghost hunter, the Kinect essentially functions like an even more sensitive version of the famous Ouija board. Shows like Ghost Adventures frequently feature investigators using the Kinect to hunt for spirits.

Modifying the Kinect for paranormal investigation was first brought into the spotlight by Bill Chappell, an inventor and investigator known for his work on Ghost Adventures. His online shop Digital Dowsing sells a wide variety of hardware tweaked for ghost hunting, including a "structured light sensor" based on the Kinect software that allows for entity tracking in a similar manner.

The Ghost Adventures crew is particularly fond of tuning the software to readily map any human figures that appear (or disappear) within a room; the group has shared some interesting results on its television show. One episode featured a small unexplainable figure waving on command. Another showed a bizarre, large figure "climbing up" beside one investigator. Both investigations included participants reporting feeling cold, and the hair on their arms standing on end, minutes before the strange figure appears. We can't say much about their physical reactions — it is, after all, a TV show — but searching for a logical explanation to these strange human-shaped figures requires a little more effort.

Polygon spoke with Tim Farley, a computer software engineer and security analyst who is also a noted skeptic. Farley specialized in electronic media as a fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and hosts the Skeptical Software Tools blog.

"It doesn't surprise me; this seems to be the trend for ghost hunting these days is to try and adapt technologies and use them to their advantages as much as possible," Farley said. "Everyone seems to have a gadget in their hands on these ghost hunts."

Farley noted that there are a lot of problems in using the Kinect the way paranormal investigators do, most notably the fact that there is no scientific way to test the setup. He noted that instruments like the Geiger counter, which is used to measure radiation, were created in a lab and then routinely tested to verify they work.

"There are a lot of assumptions."

"Ghost hunters seem to jump right to using the gadgets in the field without any validation for whether the gadget actually does what they say it's going to do," he said. "These guys taking EMF [electromagnetic field] readers and assuming if they see the dial move something is going on — no one's verified that. There's no basis for whether or not ghosts produce electric fields. There are a lot of assumptions."

Unless someone has been able to catch a ghost in a jar and test it within a laboratory environment, Farley said, there's no way to prove the Kinect's ghost-capturing efficiency.

What are the theories behind it?

The Kinect system itself is far from foolproof. The motion controls sometimes fail while playing games, and the sensitivity of the Kinect's mic results in some interesting and unreliable behavior. Sometimes it fails to detect players in the room; other times it misidentifies them. The hardware isn't perfect. This leaves the door open for skeptics to argue that the Kinect may not be the best ghost hunting tool after all. If it can't boast 100 percent accuracy for its intended uses, how can we expect to trust it when the software has been modified to catch the intangible?

In the paranormal world, there are two popular theories about why the Kinect is capable of picking up paranormal activity. The first involves the device's ability to detect ghosts. Some occultists believe the Kinect is able to capture on camera a spirit's raw kinetic energy, or the energy the spirit has when it is in motion. It is believed that this energy is what gives spirits the ability to move in our physical world alongside us. Among investigators, the spirits of the dead — those that are capable of speaking, appearing and physically moving, that is — are widely believed to be made up of residual energy.

Teams like the Ghost Adventures crew also subscribe to the theory that spirits can hone in on and use free electrical energy, which allows them to manifest in and influence objects. The crew will use devices called MEL meters and REM pods on their investigations, which are tools that measure electrical charge and energy. Unexplained and fluctuating pockets of energy are often believed to indicate a spiritual presence. Of course, they could also be magnetic fields from the neighbor's plasma TV, faulty building wiring or buried electrical cables in the yard. Such are the challenges of ghost hunting.

paranormal activity 4

Farley said that the complex algorithms that make the Kinect work are not infallible — sophisticated, but not incapable of picking up a shadow as a human figure or failing to identify gestures. People reporting the Kinect finding ghosts was "inevitable," Farley said, when people are unable to explain the software's unusual behavior. But because the software does not include algorithms for motion-captured ghosts — again, no laboratory environment for this kind of thing - there's no way to verify that strange objects captured by the Kinect are spirits.

"An algorithm is only as good as your training data," Farley said. "If you see things that don't quite work, it may seem like anomalies in the data. And if you talk to people who used the Xbox, especially early on when Kinect first came out, there was lots of complaining online that people couldn't get it to work right.

"Nobody trains those algorithms to detect ghosts; they're trained to detect people standing in front of it getting its attention," he added. "There are lots of things in frame that are invisible to a person and lots of ways [the Kinect] can be fooled."

"Nobody trains those algorithms to detect ghosts."

Farley believes that many of the "Kinect ghosts" we see on YouTube and TV are doctored hoaxes, while user-created videos of the Kinect picking up shadows and registering people in empty spaces can be the result of light reflections or faulty software.

The other theory is that the manipulation of the Kinect software is being done by the people in the room using it through psychokinesis, a phenomenon in which a person is believed to be able to manipulate and move objects or influence electronics with their mind. It's not ghosts at all, but instead a complex stew of psychic energy shared between the human observers gathered together in the same space. Some occultists even believe that the Kinect can be used to awaken and hone psychokinetic skill by attempting to manipulate the system with motion or voice controls.

The most powerful example of an experiment believed to have "awakened" psychic powers through suggestion is the famous Philip Experiment. In 1972, a group of paranormal researchers at the Toronto Society of Psychical Research conducted a psychokinesis experiment in which they sought to create a "ghost" — or an invisible force with physical power — "from scratch."

After creating a personality and backstory for Philip, the name of their fictional entity, a group of eight researchers who believed they possessed no special psychic abilities began using meditation to try and "contact" him. When it became clear meditation would yield no results, they began hosting seances to contact their made-up ghost. This time the group reported that after asking Philip questions they would hear corresponding disembodied knocks. The experiment continued to escalate in intensity, until the "ghost" would move and shake the table at which the investigators sat.

"The group noticed that the table itself felt different to the touch whenever Philip was present, having a subtle electric or 'alive' quality," wrote experiment leader Dr. Iris M. Owen in Conjuring Up Philip: An Adventure in Psychokinesis. "On a few occasions, a fine mist formed over the center of the table. Most astonishing, the group reported that the table would sometimes be so animated that it would rush over to meet latecomers to the session, or even trap members in the corner of the room."

"You'd have to set up a blinded test in a laboratory condition in a controlled situation with a Kinect and test it over and over repeatedly."

As for the psychokinesis theory, Farley said it — like capturing spirit images — could only be plausible if groups could repeatedly replicate the phenomenon in a laboratory condition. The JREF set up a template for anyone wishing to try said experiment: The organization is offering $1 million to anyone claiming to have psychic powers who can repeatedly prove such powers exist through laboratory experimentation. Farley said that in the 20-plus years the program has been running, no one has claimed the prize money.

The Amazing Randi

The JREF gets its name from James Randi, a magician and a known skeptic who rose to prominence in the late 1940s. The Canadian-American retired from the stage at the age of 60 — after completing death-defying acts like escaping from a guillotine and breaking out of a metal coffin submerged in a pool — to investigate occultism and the paranormal. He founded the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about unproven claims of the supernatural and testing such claims in a scientific environment. He also set up the $1 million prize fund for anyone who can prove under laboratory conditions that they have psychic powers.

"If they believe someone can do that, then you could probably set up a scientific test for that," he said. "If you had a person who you believed had that ability, you'd have to set up a blinded test in a laboratory condition in a controlled situation with a Kinect and test it over and over repeatedly. You should be able to duplicate it if the person has the ability to do those things."


"An anomaly is sometimes just an anomaly," Farley said, "especially with computer technology."

Technology is constantly evolving in an effort to make things better, make recreation more fun and make necessary tasks easier. For fans of science fiction, it's not hard to imagine a world in which hardware like the Kinect is used to train children in telekinesis or allow the living to communicate with lingering spirits of the dead. Perhaps nascent technologies like Google Glass will eventually be home to ghost hunting apps as amateur investigators figure out how to tweak the device to suit their purposes.

However, we don't live in a fiction novel, and for every person who believes in the power of technology's ghost hunting uses, there are many more who don't. Most paranormal groups turn to science for answers, tricking themselves out with expensive, fancy equipment that can read heat signatures and track movement rather than relying on mysterious voices caught on tape.

"An anomaly is sometimes just an anomaly."

But then again, televisions and the internet would seem like demonic magic to our ancestors. Who's to say that 50 or 100 years from now our descendants won't be using video game peripherals to talk to us beyond the grave?

So, next time you fire up the Xbox One and the Kinect registers an entity in the empty space next to you, maybe you'll think twice about dismissing it as a glitch.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.