What It’s Like to Get a Migraine from Excedrin’s Virtual Reality Simulator

Remember the old Excedrin commercials, the ones that numbered the ways you could get a headache in a series of humorous vignettes? Well, they’ve got a new headache, and now you can volunteer to get it.

Under the watchful eyes of Excedrin techies, I entered the world of augmented reality to experience first-hand what a migraine feels like. I took the Migraine Experience; a program Excedrin is launching to help non-sufferers empathize with their migraine suffering counterparts.

All joking aside about Excedrin and augmented reality being meant for each other, the Migraine Experience is being billed as the first migraine simulator. And while they can’t simulate the pain or nausea that often accompanies migraines, they can simulate many of the visual and auditory symptoms.

Before taking my spin with the simulator, I watched a focus group of five couples: mothers and their daughters, co-workers, married couples and dating couples. One in each pair suffered from migraines. One did not.

The non-sufferer donned an Oculus Rift and a headset. Through the magic of augmented reality (AR), where an overlay was placed on top of the real world, the participants were subjected to the world through the eyes of migraine: floating lights, vision distortion, auras, thumping in their headsets, bright swaths of light. All subjects reported a disorienting, disturbing experience and a newfound empathy for everything that their suffering partners must endure.

The demonstration underscored how migraine sufferers can be maligned and misunderstood. Those who had migraines in real life reported that their partners had often commented about how they were exaggerating or faking their symptoms, or that they had a low pain threshold. But after a few moments in disorienting AR, the partners claimed they had a new understanding of why a migraine might make it difficult to soldier on with daily tasks. Migraine headaches affect 11-12% percent or 36 million Americans said Excedrin’s spokesperson.

Can AR and VR experiences teach us something about other people’s suffering? Anyone who’s watched the NY Times/Google Cardboard experience on refugees will give you an emphatic yes. As for the migraine simulator? I’ve got to confess, my experience was more irritating than immersive. Without head pain, nausea and other physical effects, seeing lights dancing in front of my eyes was more like being in a bad disco than having a migraine, but I get the idea. And it’s hard to imagine people I know seeing those sights overlaid on their life every time they have an episode. If we can use the virtual world to increase empathy and understanding I’m all for it.

Excedrin plans to release the app for Google Cardboard soon so more of us can know what it’s like to feel a migraine coming on.