Tara Akhavan was an Iranian Ph.D. candidate when she gave a presentation at a conference in Vienna, Austria, about the possibility of incorporating human physiology into display screens. During a coffee break, an investor approached her and proposed she move to Montreal to attempt to commercialize her ideas in North America. She did so, and the venture, IRYStec, attracted $9 million from investors and resulted in an application on the 2020 Mercedes-Benz E-Class convertible. Last April, her business was acquired by French automotive interior and seating supplier Faurecia and rechristened Faurecia IRYStec Inc. Akhavan, 35, spoke with News Editor Lindsay Chappell about the technology and the need for innovation. Here are edited excerpts.
Physiology could help when bright lights get dim
Q: What's the nature of your research and development?
A: It is perceptual display technology. Our first product was a sunlight visibility product. You can buy the best Apple or Samsung device on the market, but you still can't read the screen in bright sunlight. In a car, you can't read the map from the sunlight. What we do can increase the visibility by 30 to 40 percent.
We're coming at it from a place of knowing how our eyes work. In one room, our eyes are in one mode, in another room, they're in another mode. So that understanding is integrated into the product.
Our intent was to close the gap between the real world we see when we look out the window and what we see when we look at the display screen. I believe that gap is the result of having hardware and software engineers building display screens. There are a lot of physiologists out there doing research in perception, but they are working in silos. Our goal was to break down those silos and bring the physiologists to sit at the table with us in product development.
Where will you take that idea next?
We're also looking into display perception that takes into account the human aging process. Aging has a huge impact on our eyes. There is a weakening of our lenses and a change in our cornea. Physiologists have done many years of research work on how eyesight changes. But right now, we're showing the same display screens to someone who is 20, who is 50 or someone who is 80. There's nothing you can change in your car to say, "I am 80." We have to use the available data to adapt screen content to the age of the driver.
How will you convey that information to a vehicle?
In newer cars, you can personalize your vehicle to adjust mirrors and seats and so forth. So you also should be able to adjust the screen based on your personal eyesight, based on information contained in your smart device. Higher-end vehicles connect to your cellphone and can ascertain your age, and so make screen adjustments as appropriate.
How precise can you be?
We're relying on modeling, based on what physiologists have learned. So we will at least have a range of accuracy, and we estimate it will represent an improvement of around 40 percent.
Colorblindness is another issue that needs to be addressed. About 10 percent of the population is colorblind, and there are ways to help with that perception issue. And that's missing in the industry.
When you were working on your Ph.D. research in this field, did you have any notion that these ideas would all end up in an automotive application?
No. I had no idea. I assumed it was something for consumer electronics — for mobile phones. I was a techie. The mobile phone industry is so focused on features, year after year. But automotive came to us. And we very soon realized that the automotive display market is massively growing year after year.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.