Stereo Orb Challenge Answered

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SJL solved the stereo orb challenge, as reported in real time on Facebook last October. This is a summary of the work.

The challenge posed by skeptics was to capture an orb on a pair of cameras simultaneously. This would prove that the orb is not a particle near only one lens. Another version of the challenge is to mount the cameras at right angles in order to capture the depth of the object. I didn’t try that and you will soon learn why it is off the table.

To be honest, orbs do correlate with inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras that mount their flash close to the lens. I demonstrated in an entry below (“Think for Yourself”) that I could tell you the camera make from its false orb pattern.

The cameras in use here were “professional.” The Fuji S3 UV-IR is an infrared police evidence camera (in a Nikon d2 body); the Nikon d300s is a well-proven DX-format workhorse, current until 2016. Premium quality Nikkor lenses were used on both, and set to 50 mm, no filters, both focused manually to infinity. Synchronization was achieved using the 10-pin interface with the d300s acting as master timer.

The system operated robotically over several nights at rates from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Many control shots and several single orb appearances were obtained. It is frustrating and tedious to publish the 8000 shots preceding these pair, as they are mostly blank. Let’s just focus on the significance of this one of two pair of shots. (Six minutes later a second pair with similar but less dramatic features was recorded.)

Oddly in my experience, these orbs appear with holes in them. As this is the only time I have used a stereo setup, and the only time these holes have appeared, I must hypothesize they result from interference patterns between the two flashes. The flashes fired together on all 8000 shots—so in any case the lighting was a constant.

Now, if we consider the image produced by the S3 police evidence camera we see a somewhat convincing orb shot with nice rounded edges.

But if we look at the simultaneous d300s picture we see the iris scallops that prove it is a faux orb shot.

Therefore, photography cannot now answer the orb question. You can come to the same conclusion a few ways. The cameras disagree. The difference between the lack of scallops on S3 and scallops on the d300s proves that no matter the quality, any camera can be fooled.

The stereo challenge was met, with pro cameras. Yet we know the images are not veridical. So, further work like this is pointless. It just explores the limits and failure modes of photography—though some might well be concerned that a specially-designed forensic camera is shown to “lie” compared to an off-the-shelf Nikon.

Unless there are actually breathable nanodrones out there—which I highly doubt—I must after a decade of study conclude that orbs are still but a matter for personal intuition. This is why many have heard me say it is not the pictures that count, it is the story. The pictures are interesting, intriguing, but largely result from optical and electrical chaos beyond direct observance or predictability in highly-miniaturized systems.


“So does this mean this is the end of your orb studies?” —Lori Denning

It is the end of photographic work. After all, I proved that a multi-thousand dollar forensic camera marketed by a first-tier imaging company specifically to LEOs in a limited run of 10,000 units in 2006-2009 lies with its flash. What does that suggest about the rest of the market?

This is something the industry needs to address. The evidence shows that they are cranking out cameras with little attention to random sensor behavior and processing errors. It will continue like this until complaints force a change. I suppose the first complaints deserve to come from anyone convicted on the basis of the S3 and perhaps the S5.

When we finally get “pro” cameras that don’t produce random errors, someone can perhaps take up photographic technique again. After all, in a decade we could have handheld Hubbles.

However, subjectivity still plays a role. Without falling into full-fledged delusions, we habitually apply interpretive tools (heuristics) to bring new experience into alignment with prior understanding. For example, pareidolia in particular encourages us to see animals or faces in cloud shapes, and is operating always to keep up the efficiency of observation. These kinds of perceptual mechanisms were elucidated to the Nobel level by Kahneman and Tversky (see “Thinking—Fast and Slow”), and tend to substantiate that part of the orb phenomenon attributable to cognitive biases. That is to say, the next notable contribution to the orb phenomenon may come from this new science of behavioral economics.

Thanks to Dean Radin, Ph.D. for his balanced advice on this matter over many years.

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