Making UX Easy on the Eyes
Faurecia IRYStec combined physiology and image processing to create uniquely personalized high-fidelity screen displays, as pioneered by Mercedes’ MBUX.
The vital concept of personalized vision has been around since the 13th century, when the first eyeglasses allegedly appeared in Italy. It then took nearly another 500 years for American inventor Benjamin Franklin to create bifocal lenses. If he’d had a glimpse into the future, the forward-thinking Franklin may have wondered why, with electronic display screens dominating 21st century life, the ability to deliver eye-friendly displays customized to the user’s own vision had been largely neglected.
That development came in 2015 when Tara Akhavan, an entrepreneurial Montreal-based computer engineer, completed her initial proof-of-concept for what became the world’s first software platform using perception and physiology to optimize the user experience (UX) of display systems. Akhavan founded a company, IRYStec Software, to take her idea to market. Mobility applications soon became a focus, and with the help of foresighted investors and Tier-1 supplier Faurecia (whose Faurecia Clarion Electronics group acquired IRYStec in 2020), Akhavan’s pioneering technology entered production in the MBUX Hyperscreen, in the 2020 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Convertible.
IRYStec provides a software development kit that OEMs integrate into their processing unit and use the ambient light information supplied via the CAN bus, Akhavan explained in an interview with SAE Media. It’s a complete software solution that enables the personalization of the display according to the driver’s vision and the ambient light. The plug-n-play technology is adaptable to all types and sizes of in-vehicle display, she said. It offers up to 30% better perceived brightness and contrast, and up to 30% energy efficiency savings and reduced thermal heating, compared with alternative systems, she said.
Beyond multiple potential applications in the mobility space, the technology can be applied to any electronic UX display and digital screen, including Times Square-sized billboards. For customers concerned about processing power and bandwidth, Faurecia IRYStec, as the company is officially known, also have a hardware version of the product—a FPGA & ASIC (field-programmable gate array; application-specific integrated circuit) that can be provided to customers as part of the screen Faurecia sells. It’s aimed at customers whose vehicles may have limited processing units.
“I was a second-year Ph.D student at the Vienna University of Technology working on the intersection of 3D displays, HDR [high dynamic range] displays, and how visual performance happens in the eye between physiology and computer vision,” Akhavan recalled. “I had a vision—to bring perception into the camera-to-display industry—but my prof did not consider it doable within a Ph.D scale. At a conference in Greece, I pitched the idea and it was dumb luck: A young guy who didn’t appear to be an investor approached me in the coffee break. He asked if I’d thought about doing a start-up with my idea.”
The focus of Akhavan’s idea is what we, as drivers, see and perceive from the display screen. We want the content we see, in our brains, to be as true as possible to the original scene. “That was the aim: to find methodologies and approaches to help us focus on perception of the display, rather than what it is in pixels,” she said. The investor she met in Greece became IRYStec’s first investor. She moved to Canada “in a leap of faith” to complete, at his suggestion, a 6-month internship where she learned about start-ups and his company’s business model. The experience ended successfully, with a $500,000 check.
IRYStec was born and Akhavan began putting her core R&D team together. It now numbers 18, with about one-third of them Ph.Ds in image processing and computer vision. The other two-thirds are engineers and developers, excluding the available expertise in Faurecia Clarion Electronics.
A ‘unique approach’
Initially, the start-up’s main focus was the consumer electronics sector – the dominant market for UX technologies. But the team soon found that it was far more complex to enter than they’d reckoned. China dominates, and for a small software company based in Montreal. So, that became a beast we had to deal with,” she said. “But while we were struggling there, Automotive came to us.”
Akhavan knew a researcher at Daimler-Benz, whose own Ph.D thesis was similar to hers. “He completely understood what we were trying to achieve; he told his bosses that he’d found a working prototype of what they’d been attempting to try themselves.” As IRYStec gained attention among automakers, more investors started to appear. The reason: safety. “Safety as it relates to the visibility and quality of the in-vehicle screen, in all dynamic lighting conditions, to every driver’s age and eye, and on every type of hardware—LCD, HDR, OLED, Quantum dot—is all important,” she said. “It’s a very well-known problem that we had a unique approach that nobody else had. That resonated.”
Blending the physiology and perception is the essence of Faurecia IRYStec’s, as it’s officially known, product, Akhavan said. “Knowing exactly what happens when we’re in a dark environment versus a sunny environment, and how our eyes’ behavior changes, we can compensate for that with the screen. It doesn’t matter if the pixels aren’t moving [in example she shows]; what matters is all the viewers will see it as moving. Artists were playing with these visual tricks for ages, and physiologists know about why it happens.”
The power of the company’s unique software is rooted in the basic RGB – red, blue, green – values that are core to the image-processing and computer-vision worlds. “Our ‘secret sauce’ is how much to play with each value, and to which direction. We don’t go ‘brute force’ and we don’t do trial-and-error. We use specific scientific approaches and data that says, when you’re in a sunny environment this is the amount of sharpness or contrast you lose. So, we add exactly X on the content side by playing with the RGB values.
“Basically, every frame that wants to go on the screen we intercept, we change the RGBs with our magic physiological ‘sauce’, knowing how much in every lighting condition we need to change it,” Akhavan explained. “That knowledge comes from the ambient light sensor which exists in all vehicles. Based on that, we know how much visibility is being lost. So, we compensate for it by changing everything on the fly before it’s shown on the screen.”
It’s all about manipulating the content at the pixel level. Greater optical acuity and fidelity for future products may require greater richness of sensor information and even better ambient light. “Current off-the-shelf ambient light sensors are a commodity,” she noted. “They have a very good range; they read from zero to 100,000 lux [lumens per square meter] which is a super-bright sunny day. So, they give us enough accuracy and range. Adding more sensors to give the direction of the light are not needed.
To integrate the software kit requires access to the ambient light sensor access, usually through the CAN bus “but we really don’t care how they give us that information,” Akhavan explained. “We need access to the frame buffer that goes on the screen –that’s the content that’s supposed to be rendered on the screen. Then our software runs on the CPU and GPU. We need about 5-10% of GPU [power] to run our algorithm. Or we can go with the FPGA. Those are the standard inputs. Right now, we’re plug-n-play for high-end and mid-to-high end vehicles. Our product is very simple; our customers are actually positively surprised by its size,” she said.
Maintaining the IRYStec group’s autonomy within the corporation, to help sustain the innovation culture, is important to Faurecia-Clarion Electronics Business Group. “Always after an acquisition the founder is worried: what’s going to happen next?” Akhavan said. “There are horrible examples of how innovation dies within the larger company. We were very lucky with Faurecia in keeping us as autonomous as possible to maintain the innovator’s speed, but also integrating us so we didn’t feel we’re siloed. “We have found a balance,” she asserted. “We work in a joint roadmap so we know where we can add value to Faurecia’s products.”