If you don't get migraines, you'll never understand how excruciating they are. Sorry, but unless you've ever had your face in a toilet, throwing up because the blinding pain running up your neck and out of your eyeballs became too painful to internalize, I doubt you'll get it. And that's fine!
So when I saw that OTC pain relief brand Excedrin just unveiled a AR migraine simulator called "The Migraine Experience" for Google Cardboard, I scratched my (currently migraine-free) head. Why does this exist? Who is it for, and why on Earth would any unafflicted person care to know what it feels like to have your skull split apart from the inside out?
According to Excedrin's website, this high-tech torture device is the first migraine simulator in the world. You don't say. Using augmented reality technology—that is, technology that layers virtual elements on top of existing reality—it aims to create "an immersive experience that replicates common migraine symptoms, such as sensitivity to light and sound, disorientation, and aura (visual disturbances, sometimes manifesting as spots or jagged edges)."
According to Chip Chick, Excedrin had a custom rig developed for its simulator that combines VR and AR, which allows users to see augmented reality elements but with the benefit of virtual reality's 360-degree field of vision.
Excedrin claims that migraines are still widely misunderstood by those who don't have to endure them, but the opportunity to virtually step into a sufferer's shoes will help to spread positive awareness about the condition.
"We're simulating the symptoms of a migraine—everything but the pain—because experiencing is believing. Using technology to drive human emotion to help migraineurs feel better understood—allowing non-sufferers, for the first time, to see what it's like to have a migraine," Scott Yacovino, senior brand manager at Excedrin, said in a statement.
When Excedrin demoed an experimental, VR version of the migraine simulator last year, VRFocus credited the company with presenting a compromise solution to the simulator sickness that was endemic to Oculus Rift DK1. That compromise was to deliberately create an uncomfortable experience for users. Whether or not Excedrin had any clue that Oculus Rift's first developer kit was plagued with head-tracking lags that made people want to vomit into their laps out of nausea is debatable. But it's also entirely possible they did know, and saw it as an opportunity to creatively capitalize on the glitch until developers found ways to fix it. Which they have. Sort of.
Regardless, a lot of brands are champing at the bit to use AR and VR to market and sell their products to consumers in new ways. Likewise, Excedrin's migraine simulator is part of a large ad campaign that's ostensibly about raising awareness for people who suffer from the condition, but is also very much about getting those people to buy Excedrin for their migraines.
Getting upset over misfired advertising is almost always an exercise in futility. But it's frustrating to see a pharmaceutical brand investing in technology that's actually pretty cool, only to completely miss the point of what migraine-sufferers really want and need from drug companies, which is more research about our disease and better, safer treatment options.
The brand collaborated with a group of migraine-sufferers to translate their symptoms, aside from the actual pain, into a simulated experience. Each person described "the symptoms they most often experience during an episode, including aura, disorientation, and blurred vision," according to a statement. Those sufferers then nominated someone they knew (the individuals they chose were a mom, a boyfriend, a best friend, and a co-worker) to spend a day walking around with their "migraine."
But all "The Migraine Experience" is really able to imitate are the optical byproducts of the disease, like clouded vision, flashing dots of light, and distorted images.
Even if the AR simulator did mimic the physical and emotional pain caused by a migraine, which it doesn't, based on Excedrin's promotional video, the immersive experience doesn't appear any different from sitting through a moderately nauseating carnival ride.
As my colleague, Vice Sport's Aaron Gordon, nicely put it, "unless someone also drills a hole into your temple but the bit never actually penetrates your skull and just drills forever then sure, good work. Otherwise, I don't think it's really capturing it."
AR and VR for empathy are real things that hold the potential for real benefits. Some medical researchers even think augmented and virtual reality could one day be an effective form of therapy. And like any new tech, some early adopters are getting it right, and some aren't.
There are two types of empathy that augmented reality could help to foster: affective empathy, and cognitive empathy. The first deals with someone's ability to detect and mirror another person's sensations and feelings, such as stress or anxiety. The latter refers to someone's ability to identify with and understand a person's emotions, like sadness or happiness.
Excedrin's AR simulator facilitates neither. Not only does it fail to create an accurate or meaningful representation of the physical pain migraines cause, it also doesn't present any virtual elements that would help non-sufferers understand how migraines make a person feel emotionally.
Migraines are a condition rooted in pain, and a pain-killer brand should know that. While the ocular consequences of a migraine, such as blurred or distorted vision, certainly aren't fun to experience, they pale in comparison to the agonizing neurological effects that currently debilitate 38 million men, women, and children in the US.
Excedrin says there are still too many people who don't understand that migraines aren't just headaches. While the brand's concern over the disease's reputation is an important one, it's not even close to being the primary challenge that sufferers face today.
The neurological condition is still vastly under-researched, under-diagnosed, and poorly treated. According to the American Migraine Foundation, "a lack of funding for migraine research is one of the major factors that have slowed the speed of new developments in the field." Less than 1 percent of the National Health Institute's yearly budget is allocated to migraine research.
The poor state of modern migraine treatment also puts millions of people in the position of having to choose between pain relief and a scarily-long list of harmful side-effects. I personally take a prescription drug that's known for making people feel woozy and disoriented, and also presents the risk for liver damage.
If I could choose between safer treatment options and someone feeling sorry for me when I said I had a migraine, I would pick the former.
Motherboard's editor-in-chief, Derek Mead, poignantly summarized the problem with virtual reality, brands, and end-users: "The people who can spend money on developing out a content ecosystem with no users are the people who need to get those users into the ecosystem to sell them things—namely, brands, and to a lesser extent, media."
Excedrin's AR gimmick may very well end up being a necessary evil for advancing the technology and bringing in new users. But will it make my life any easier when I start to feel the dull pulse of a migraine coming on? I doubt it.
If Excedrin worked on my migraines (it doesn't), maybe I'd actually buy some for that.