Anyone who has a smart-phone and is interested in ghosts has probably at least looked at the various ghost hunting apps available. In order to judge the validity of these apps we have to look into a few things about both modern smart phones and the apps themselves. Let’s start with a listing of the sensors that are commonly equipped on a mid-grade to high-end smart phone. Proximity sensors, magnetometers, accelerometers, light sensors, barometers, gyroscopes, and in some cases thermometers. There are a lot of things crammed into that handful of Lexan, and metal.
What do these things do for the phone? How can they apply to ghost hunting? Let’s take a look at what some of these sensors do.
1. The proximity sensor is a small IR device that detects the user’s ear. This is to help the phone save power by shutting off the back light on the display, and to disable the touch screen while it is pressed up to the ear. What is the possible use for this as it applies to a ghost app? Depending on the type of sensor and its range, we could make a case for the phone’s ability to detect low energy infrared entities.
2. A barometer on a phone is used to support the GPS chip. In order for the GPS chip to provide an accurate location, it takes the altitude data which is supplied by the barometer. If this sensor is used as part of the app, it could be due to the belief by some ghost hunters that when an entity materializes in our plane, it has an effect on the local barometric pressure. If this is true then it could be argued that the barometer may pick up these pressure changes.
3. The magnetometer is a basic compass that allows the phone to keep itself oriented to the direction of magnetic North. The purpose of this is to allow the user to rotate digital maps to their current physical orientation. Now in order for this to have any bearing on ghost hunting, it would mean that these entities must have some effect on the local magnetic field.
So just taking these three sensors into account, and stacking them up against some of the beliefs held by ghost hunters, I have to admit that there is at least the possibility that a ghost hunting app could be detecting something. My skepticism is founded upon the basis that some of these apps are reportedly nothing more than random number generators that convert the stream of numbers into words, or blips on a screen. Add to this the disclaimer that many of these apps have stating that they are “For Entertainment Purposes Only” So that being said, how legitimate can the data that these apps collect and display be? For the most part, people don’t have the ability to delve into the apps on their devices and determine whether they are really utilizing the sensors that the phone, or tablet have onboard. Even then there are few places where one can actually research, and confirm the abilities, and ranges of the sensors. So it really amounts to having blind faith that the app is doing what it says.
Are these apps serious data collection devices, or are they just flashy toys? I fall on the side of thinking they are entertaining toys. This is why. I conducted an experiment where I downloaded a popular ghost hunting app onto a pair of identical Android tablets. I placed them side by side then I separated them by six inches, then 12 inches, and finally 3 feet. I watched them collect and display data for a period of one hour at each distance in order to see if there would be a pattern. I also wanted to see how well they would sync up based on their proximity to each other. At no time did these tablets ever show the same data at the same time. They were wildly different. Even if they showed a blip on the radar at the same time the location was different for each blip. The app also has an EVP sensor. At no time within the time of the study did this section of the app ever record the same word at the same time.
Granted this is just a sampling of one very popular app, and one type of device. In order to have a really valid study I would have to use the same app on identical pairs of phones and tablets. This study would also require multiple replications of each pair on several dates. The larger the sample size, the better the data. As a scientist, I have to admit that this is not enough data to arrive at a valid conclusion. It does however allow me to put forward the hypothesis that these ghost hunting apps are not really doing anything that is going to help those of us that investigate the paranormal get main-stream science accept our findings. You can’t use toys and expect scientist to take your research seriously.