Little Wristband Will Replace Your Passwords
Companies have been dangling the promise of hyper-connected smart environments in front of us for years. We’ve been told that soon we’ll be able to walk into a room, and our devices will instantly cater to our preferences. In this world, Spotify has learned that you enjoy listening to hip hop while making dinner, and your Jambox knows how loud you like the volume. Upon entering your kitchen, the lights dim to a warm glow, just the way you like it, and based on what you’ve indicated you’re making for dinner via a cooking app, the oven presets to 400 degrees with just a wave of your hand.
Sounds pretty great, right? But the problem is, how do these devices even know who’s there? Tailoring environments to our desires is reliant on devices knowing and understanding the people who use them. But short of manually programming your preferences, there’s no easy way for our gadgets and apps to know who we are or what we like. “We see ourselves as sort of the central point in enabling that in a really simple way,” says Karl Martin, CEO of Bionym, a biometrics company based in Toronto.
Martin and his team have created the Nymi, a plastic wristband that is aiming to be the common thread that connects your identity to the smart devices of the future. Born out of research done at the University of Toronto, the device uses a biometric sensor to authenticate identity through a person’s unique electrocardiogram. Which is a fancy way of saying, the pattern of your heartbeat could be your new set of keys.
The Bionym team found a way to extract features of your heartbeat that allows them to create a robust biometric template. So if you get nervous and your heart speeds up or you just ran a few miles, the waveform of your heartbeat might appear more condensed, but it’s still essentially the same pattern. The idea is that users will strap on the Nymi each morning, touch the topside sensor to read their ECG and will be constantly authenticated until they decide to take it off.
Other devices like the NFC Ring and Motorola’s Skip are using near field communication technology to do away with passwords and make the world more wirelessly connected, but they don’t really take the individual into account. Those devices are essentially like high-tech keys that if lost, could theoretically be used by whoever found it.
The Nymi’s biggest advantage (and biggest risk) is that it uses biometrics to validate a user’s identity. This puts the Nymi in a position to make personalization and identity more easily accessible than ever before, but it also carries a massive responsibility for protecting privacy. The band won’t work unless it detects your specific ECG, so depending on how you intend to use it, it needs to be around your wrist all day long. This allows for persistent authentication, meaning you don’t have to continually touch a pad to register your fingerprint or swipe a ring to open your front door. Depending on the proximity determined by developers, you simply have to walk into a room to engage with devices or apps. “If your identity is being used to provide a personalized experience, the value of that is that you don’t have to think about it,” Martin says. “If you had to enter things every time, that’s not as valuable.”
Of course, wearing something all day every day is a lot to ask, particularly because no one has gotten wearable technology quite right. The Nymi looks a lot like the fitness trackers on the market: a relatively inconspicuous rubber wristband with a sensor on the wrist and at the top. Though it doesn’t scream “Look! Technology!” it’s certainly not invisible. Bionym is toying with the form factor and has considered making the Nymi into a necklace or embeddable into clothing. One thing they’re not doing, is following the shiny smart watch trend. “You have to think, ‘Well, what is it people are willing to accept?’” Martin says. “There’s been so much talk about smart watches and how they’re the next big thing, but nobody’s really justified why somebody would want to put a big screen on their wrist. We’re following the philosophy that wearable tech is less about the digital interaction with the user and more about technology that melts into the background.”
Martin believes the interactions between people and technology should be passive, but not altogether absent. The most recent version of the Nymi will communicate with users by little vibrations that let them know their identity is being used or that the band is talking to other devices. “The idea is that users want some awareness and it can be really subtle,” he says. “But it goes toward this assurance of privacy and security and this idea that it’s not doing things without you knowing it.”
Privacy is a big concern for the Nymi, and you can imagine the company is going to encounter some serious questions about the security of wearing your biometric identity around your wrist. Typed passwords and pin numbers can be discarded and easily changed, but if your ECG gets into the wrong hands, that’s a big problem since you can’t exactly reset your heartbeat. Martin says the Nymi was conceived with the idea of “privacy by design,” which is basically Bionym’s policy of building a product that’s rooted in keeping data protected. “There’s going to be major pushback if users feel their privacy isn’t protected,” admits Martin.
The wristband uses a cryptographic chip, which means all data is encrypted at the hardware level. And Martin says it’s impossible for anyone to trace the signal emitting from the wrist band back to the user unless people opt-in to allow that access (the default setting is opt-out).”Whenever there’s a new technology that people don’t necessarily understand, there’s always going to be a backlash and fear,” he says. ”It’s not immediately obvious, but this product is actually a way for people to improve their privacy and take more control over their information.”
You can pre-order the Nymi for $79, but it’s not going into production until spring of 2014. In the months leading up to the official launch, Bionym’s main task is getting third-party developers on board to create a thriving ecosystem of apps and devices that the Nymi can be used with. Proving the Nymi’s value to other companies is the first step to this new technology being adopted by the larger public. “There’s almost a chicken and egg thing here,” Martin says. “You need a lot of people [users] on board to make it justifiable for others to want to integrate, and for people to want to get on board, they want to know that there’s a lot of integration and that it will do a lot of things for them.”