User Authentication: Heartbeat Soon to Replace Biometric Fingerprints?

By October 02, 2014

Canadian startup Bionym has just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help bring its pioneering device-unlocking wristband to market. The ‘Nymi’ bracelet works by using your heartbeat to prove your identity when carrying out everyday tasks.

Many startups share one basic aim: to make everyday tasks easier to carry out. And one key factor in simplifying tasks and interacting with the world around you nowadays is remote/online identification, whether we are talking about making your workplace ‘smarter’ by sending Bluetooth signals via iBeacons, or developing biometric fingerprint recognition technologies such as Apple’s TouchID. Much recent research into creating new ID/security systems has been focusing on using combinations of data, e.g. from both the brain and the heart, one example being the work done by the various participants in the Humabio EU-co-funded ‘Specific Targeted Research Project’.  Now Toronto-based startup Bionym has raised funding from Ignition Partners, Relay Ventures, MasterCard and Salesforce Ventures in order to speed up development of its Nymi wristband. The first 25,000 people to pre-order the Nymi will benefit from a special introductory price of $79. The device uses an electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor which recognises your individual heart rhythm and will then automatically unlock a device or door. Nymi’s ECG sensor does not measure your actual heart rate but rather the electrical activity your heart generates, which is as unique as a fingerprint.

Sensors refining authentication methods

Researchers working on the Actibio project, which is funded from the European Union budget under the current (7th) Framework Programme for R&D, had already been looking at tapping into the potential of the human heartbeat, in particular obtaining biometric signatures based on a user’s unique response to specific stimuli. The Bionym device is based on ECG technology and is even more precise: the Nymi wristband captures the unique electrical activity your heart generates. How it works is that the user wears the wristband with the lower sensor touching the skin, and then presses with the other hand on the upper sensor so as to create an electrical current to detect the ECG. In order to use the wristband for authentication on your devices, you first need to link it with an ‘Authorised Authentication Device’ (AAD), which means a smartphone or other ICT device registered with the system via the Nymi app. The Nymi is also equipped with an accelerometer and a gyroscope, instruments which detect simple movements so that it can be used to open car boots and doors wirelessly by moving your wrist in a given direction. Bionym has moreover incorporated Bluetooth Low Energy into the wristband, so that users can interact with the world around them and be detected by connected objects close by.

Broad range of applications

A glance at Bionym’s investors gives us some indication of the range of applications the wristband can potentially offer. Salesforce Wear, the ‘wearables’ arm of customer relationship management specialist and cloud computing services provider Salesforce, intends to promote Nymi wristbands for obtaining access to buildings and public spaces, using the heartbeat ID to replace all other access cards. Meanwhile Mastercard wants to explore Bionym technology to dematerialise payments via Bluetooth technology, the idea being that payment authentication would be carried out on the basis of your cardiac rhythm, giving the user a novel purchasing experience in-store. Bionym technology is also able to simplify other everyday tasks, such as opening your car door by moving your arm, opening your hotel room, and even personalising your notifications – email, messages, social network posts, etc. Bionym has already garnered over 10,000 pre-orders for its wristbands, and counting, and the company is encouraging applications developers to come up with new angles on its technology by providing a Software Development Kit and an API.


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