The last time I had a normal conversation with my brother, Tommy, we’d spent the afternoon painting mythic figures from Chinese lore in our garage. It was his final day of vacation before he went back to teaching at the art academy. We were both painting in the traditional style of guóhuà, using brushes dipped in ink and painting on paper. Although I wasn’t at his skill level, he was patient, giving me tips (and critiques) as needed. My subject was the legendary archer Hou Yi, who’d shot down nine of the 10 suns that revolved around Earth. I liked depicting Earth as a fiery inferno. By the time we finished, it was evening and my fingers were covered with ink calluses so I went to wash my hands. That’s when Tommy began screaming.
I rushed back to our garage and saw him on the ground. “What’s wrong?”
“E-everything’s on fire!” he shouted. “Call the fire department!”
Was he joking?
“We need to get out!” he screamed in a panicked frenzy.
“There’s no fire,” I assured him. “Everything’s fine.”
But he swore he saw blue fire everywhere. It wasn’t hot, he said. It was loud and smelled of ashes.
When it finally hit me that he was being serious, I didn’t know what I should do. Everywhere he looked, he yelled, the world was burning and stank of sulfur.
I drove him to the hospital.
The medical staff gave him antipsychotics that made him dizzy and unable to concentrate. A day later, we were sent back home with a bag full of drugs. That evening, dosed up on some new concoction based off of Thorazine, he asked me, “Do you see the blue fire?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” I replied, wishing I could.
He squinted and said, “It’s hard to see your face anymore. I wish I could see things without the blue.” There was a desperation in his voice that I wanted to understand. He sat quietly and closed his eyes. “Am I just delusional?”
“You’ll get better,” I assured him, but the words came out as empty as I felt.
He quit his job as an art instructor and withdrew his work from the local gallery. “What’s the point?” he asked, barely able to hold the brush straight since his hands shook so much from the drugs.
He lost interest in going outside his room, especially as he had a difficult time communicating with people. I hoped his condition would improve with time. It didn’t.
As I’d soon find out from news outlets, another 95 people worldwide suffered from the same condition, which specialists came to call “the Burn.” The oddest part was that despite coming from different cultures and not speaking the same language, all of them experienced the same blue fire. When I contacted experts in mental health disorders like schizophrenia, they were baffled that the Burn started at the same time for each of the patients: 7:56PM PT.
That’s what led me to change my career focus from art to studying the disease. The traditional approach of psychology was too academic and limiting for what I wanted to learn, which was to understand his symptoms on a more visceral level.
I wanted to see what he saw.
I researched everything I could find, no matter how obscure or unorthodox. While falling down one rabbit hole, I came across a promising venture: an AR engine called Sensitivity Operational Parallel (SOP), which a tech firm had developed to re-create the world through the eyes of people enduring various disabilities. SOP couldn’t re-create those conditions perfectly, but it could give family members and doctors a better idea of what it was like. I also appreciated the sensitivity SOP took to avoid the stigmas of mental illnesses by calling each condition an Alternative Perceptual Modality (APM).
But SOP was guilty of bad aesthetics, and they were eagerly seeking a digital artist to improve their visual fidelity. I felt that my experiences bridging medicine and art would make a good fit.
I interviewed with SOP, the small development studio in Berkeley that shared its name with the engine. “Why focus on AR, not VR?” I asked their president and chief engineer, Sabrina Chung.
“Because VR takes you to another world. I want to show people how an APM changes the way people experience this world.”
It made sense.
She asked me what I hoped to achieve at SOP. I told her about how the Burn had affected my brother. When I told her that I wanted to re-create his experience in the SOP, I wasn’t sure what her reaction would be.
She asked, “Are you concerned at all that this course of study will do more harm by feeding people’s delusions?”
“It’s always a concern,” I replied. “One of my hopes is that being able to experience the APM firsthand could help doctors diagnose and someday treat it.”
She must have liked my answer because I got the job.
SOP was a tiny studio made up of only eight people. Despite that, it took me six whole months just to learn the basics of the engine. Fortunately, I knew the tools I needed as their first digital artist: Maya for polygonal building and animation, Zbrush for high-density sculpting, and Houdini for complex FX, all of which could be exported into the SOP. I asked for multiple changes to the engine’s toolset, working with Sabrina to make the improvements more user-friendly.
“That’s really good art,” Sabrina commented about the paintings by Tommy I’d put up around my desk, mostly video game characters in guóhuà style.
“It’s my brother’s work. I miss drawing together with him. How’d you get into all this?” I asked, gesturing to the office.
“My dad suffered from the Burn 20 years ago,” Sabrina said. “Like you, I want to understand it better.”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean, 20 years ago?” This hadn’t been mentioned in any of the current news reports.
“I don’t know if it was 96 people then, but he wasn’t alone. A lot of other people suffered the same blue fire.”
“What happened to your dad?” I asked.
“His burn lasted two months, and then it just went away. And as far as I know, the same thing happened to everyone else back then. People called them insane, and doctors took it as evidence that the antipsychotic drugs were working. But none of his symptoms made sense. You know what the worst part for me was?”
“There was nothing I could do to help.” She stared at the table. “I created SOP to try to understand him better. But I’ve wondered, what if we got it wrong? What if documenting the symptoms doesn’t actually help anyone?”
I replied, “All the other specialists have given up. Maybe by doing this, we can get them to take another look.”
Our common past helped us to work together even harder.
We found it easy to generate fire imagery in the engine, but what Tommy was describing was different than what we were simulating. His description — that the flames were a conglomeration of mute, spiky mouths that were almost liquid-like in substance — seemed cryptic and otherworldly.
We cast our net wide, sifting through unrelated cases until we found eight more patients afflicted with the Burn. Like Tommy, they had been prescribed antipsychotics that did nothing to dull their visions of the fire. They all had barren rooms in dull, uniform colors. None of them could live on their own, and they had to stay with family who supported them to function.
When I conducted interviews with the patients, I realized that while they all saw the fire, they each experienced something different in its form. One patient saw what appeared to be a swarm of beetles flying through a field of paparazzi while singing a Korean pop song. Another observed hundreds of dollar bills floating in a stream of what smelled, at times, like urine, then red wine. I recorded all of their descriptions and worked to re-create the images in the engine.
With each visit, I saw the look of desperation and hopelessness in their family members. The question I repeatedly got asked was: “Are they closer to finding a cure?” I could see years of strain and sorrow in the eyes of the family members, saddened as I’d explain our intent again.
I spent four weeks generating the individual “fires,” and then I integrated them into the SOP with haptic gear so users could see and feel what we’d created. The SOP could record any object in the eyeline of the user, re-create it as a low polygonal mesh, then project the fire over it. For the longest time, I felt like I was going in random circles, no closer to matching my goal. Then I noticed the sketch-like nature of Tommy’s drawing and got inspired to be looser with my re-creations, capturing the spirit of what he was depicting rather than an exact duplicate.
Still, I wasn’t getting anywhere. But it got me thinking: maybe I could ask Tommy for help.
He’d moved back in with my parents in Sacramento, so I drove up over the weekend. I asked him if he could try painting what he saw in AR using our new Shinkawa digital brush.
“You know I can’t hold a brush,” he reminded me.
“You can use your hands and paint anywhere,” I told him. “Think of the world as your canvas.”
I connected his smartglasses to my own so I could see what he created. As he moved his hands around, trails of red paint followed.
“I’ve always heard about these but never used them myself. How do I undo?” he asked.
I brought up the interface so he could undo, change brush size, color, thickness, and adjust numerous other variables. For the first time in a long while, he was excited and energized. I felt like a kid again, watching him paint elaborate vistas and strange chimeras of humans, exaggerating their features in a mix of surrealism and caricature. Now, he scaled down the brush size to draw very tiny patterns, almost like hieroglyphics. If I didn’t know better, I’d have bet that it was mathematics or programming.
I thanked him afterward. He shook his head and said, “It felt nice to paint again.”
I saved what Tommy had worked on, exported it as a template that I retopologized in Zbrush. Sabrina helped me integrate the different shapes as particles into the engine. The FX we’d used earlier were now composed of millions of these instanced pieces, and she was having a hard time loading them all because it took up so much memory.
“I’ll work on it,” she told me.
It took some trial and error; in its early state, the projections were out of sync and depth of field wasn’t working, so the fire had trouble figuring out where to focus. But then it all came together, and the world flooded in a blue blaze. It was eerie to see what my brother had talked about for so long.
“Sabrina!” I called. “Sabrina!”
She rushed over. I showed her what I’d generated. She fell after she turned on the blue fire, got back up, and looked around.
“This is unbelievable,” she said. “There are a couple of tweaks I can make to the engine to improve this.”
Once we got the visual alignment working, we took the SOP to each of the eight patients so they could see what we’d done. But it was the family members who were most keen on the experience. All of them tried the gear on and were shocked by what they saw. One of the fathers started crying and asked, “This is what my son sees?”
I confirmed. He couldn’t believe it and wanted to know, “How can my son live like this?”
Even with their emotions muted by the drugs, the patients were relieved by the reactions of their family and the burgeoning realization that what they were seeing was actually real. We still had a ways to go as they pointed out flaws with the imagery. The fire needed to look more granular, like millions of tiny geometric shapes moving in unison.
“I’m confused,” Sabrina said.
“I always thought the fire was random and generated it in the engine that way. But the only fires the patients are responding to are the ones you and your brother designed.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
It’d been a long week, and I was exhausted. But our breakthroughs made me feel like all the overtime had been worth it. I drove home to my apartment in El Cerrito, fired up the old PS2, and played some Metal Gear Solid 2. It was Tommy’s favorite game for the ways it questioned the social and digital fabric of reality. I thought about all the times we used to draw our favorite video game characters and the games we told ourselves we’d make one day. I fell asleep and woke up when I heard my phone ring. It was Sabrina. Why was she calling me at 4AM?
“You’ve got to come in,” she said.
“Just come in.” Her voice brooked no opposition, so I drove back.
“This is a programming language,” she said as soon as she saw me.
“Programmed by a person?”
“I don’t know who, but the art design made me look for patterns in the generation of the coding for the fire. It got me wondering: how can 96 people have a similar hallucination all around the same time?”
“I changed my approach and thought of the Burn as a programming code. See the way the symbols are organized? There’s actually a logic to it.”
“Is there?” I asked as the significance of that fact began to dawn on me.
“Yep. And it’s code that works as an augment on top of our world. Put these on,” she said as she handed me the glasses.
I turned them on. The world wasn’t on fire. It was actually malleable, as though I could see the molecular bindings of every object around me and the electron fields they projected. Even the ground seemed partially liquefied.
“This is pretty dang creepy.”
“You need to wait.”
The face of a strange cat appeared before me. It had four eyes and ears like that of an orangutan. As I watched, it grew, and I saw that it was made up of strange symbols moving over its surface. I moved backward until I hit the wall behind me.
“That,” she said when she saw my expression.
“What the hell is that?” I asked, startled.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Sabrina said. “Did that cat remind you of anything?”
When she mentioned it, it did look sort of familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Sabrina held up her phone, opened Twitter, and pulled up trending topics. Listed between celebrity misquotes and political mishaps was a trend for an oversized cat along with an orangutan who got free from a zoo and wreaked havoc.
“Twitter caused the Burn?” I said, confused.
“I backtracked with the other visions and matched them to corresponding internet trends, not just on Twitter, but Facebook, Weibo, and other social media networks. Someone is trying to communicate with us using those trends,” she explained.
“I don’t know. But if they’re sending their messages directly to people’s brains, they’re using some pretty advanced technology.”
I went to visit the patients again, reviewing their notes versus the updates we’d made. I knew we were on the right track when every one of the patients agreed that we were close to re-creating what they were experiencing.
When I returned to SOP, Sabrina’s office was a mess, covered in half-eaten takeout boxes and soda cans. “I figured out what’s going on,” she said excitedly from her desk as she typed in a few more lines of code.
We put on our smartglasses and the tactile suits and flipped on the SOP. Immediately, the world turned blue. The framework was much more advanced than our previous visit as she implemented a combination of biochemical sensors, a library of smell IDs, and an AI used to associate scents with specific triggers.
“I’d limited sensory feedback to the visual only. But after I started translating odors into polygons, it helped me to see a much clearer picture.”
All around us, I could see geographical structures made of smell. There was a Grand Canyon of kimchee and Himalayas composed from fermented tofu. The most shocking part of it was all the ships filled with tiny organisms.
“Do you see them?” Sabrina asks.
“What are they?”
“I think it’s another alien civilization.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Wait, so they’re beings from a different dimension?”
“That implies an otherness that doesn’t actually exist. It’s like light: we don’t register all the wavelengths, but they’re still there. Other civilizations on Earth perceive different wavelengths of existence. We’ve never been attuned to them, but we can all feel their effects on the planet. Usually, we’re limited to our own spheres. But with AR, we can finally get a glimpse of the other existences.”
She pointed to the tiny crafts sailing through the olfactory sea.
“I’m purely hypothesizing now, but I think these exist solely on smell. There’s another that thrives on radiation and solar activity. They feel every polarity and resonance as a wave, ready to rupture their fragile molecular binds. Their language, if it can be called that, revolves around sonic stitches that would be imperceptible to human ears, but that might make a bat’s ears burst.”
“What about the Burn?”
“My theory, based on the symbol extraction I’ve done, is that they subsist on the internet. They thrive on information and electric pulses, and viral trends are like feasts for them.”
“So why did they cause the Burn?”
“Based on what I’ve been able to figure out so far, I think… they made a mistake. They thought our eyes were bioorganic AR gear and were trying to communicate with us by projecting information into them directly. They’ve tried it every couple of years to see if they could get through to us and included these algorithms to help us connect back to them. Because our actual, organic eyes weren’t compatible with the data they sent, we ended up with the Burn.”
Sabrina and I spent hours navigating the alien world, which, with the glasses off, was just our lab. I never realized the architectural marvels of olfactory sensations or how the internet could be as rocky as a hurricane if you rode its currents.
“I need to go see my brother,” I said.
“I need to call my dad,” Sabrina replied.
I sped to my parents’ house and ran up to Tommy’s room, eager to share what we’d discovered.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Tired and miserable, as usual.”
I explained everything we learned and how we hoped talking with the aliens would lead to a cure. He had a hard time believing that aliens had caused his condition, but I could see relief in his face, too. “You think we can go for a short drive?” he asked.
“Anywhere in particular?”
We drove down to the bay. It was cold and windy, but Tommy seemed to enjoy the breeze. “The whole bay’s still on fire,” he said, pointing at the water.
With my glasses on, I finally could see exactly what he was seeing.
“At least now I know why,” he said. “Do you know if aliens like video game art?”
“I’m not sure. Did you have something in mind?”
He grinned. “Maybe we should send them a message back.”