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Sunday, February 8, 2015

How Toronto-based Nymi wants to replace passwords with heart rate authentication 02-08

How Toronto-based Nymi wants to replace passwords with heart rate authentication

Whether it’s logging into a work computer, bank account or even something as simple as unlocking a smartphone, passwords are a necessary and often highly frustrating complication of everyday life.
Toronto-based Nymi, formerly known as Bionym, wants to simplify the password-entering process through its electrocardiography (ECG) bracelet that shares the same name as the company behind it – Nymi.
We already have fingerprint scanners, facial recognition technology, and even retinal scanners, but Dr. Karl Martin, Nymi’s CEO and co-founder, wants to take the concept of user authentication further, making the process simpler than ever before.
“The core technology around the recognition was researched at the University of Toronto. I had a co-founder at the time who was working on the technology (I was working on other biometric technologies at the time) and we started Bionym. We started with the technology without a concept of how to use it, but there was a concept that came out of that research — continuous authentication ECG,” says Martin.
Martin thinks Nymi’s ECG technology could be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from giving the wearer instant access to their smartphone, logging into a PC user account or even turning on a vehicle, all authenticated by wearing the Nymi.
“We were really looking to licence this technology and its algorithms, but about two years into the business we realized, well, number one, we want to bring a product to market and that the real power of the concepts were the continued persistence of knowing who this person is [through ECG]. We very quickly realized that to enable this we needed something wearable — something on the body. Because if it’s just your phone or something in your pocket, there’s really no mechanism to always ensure that it’s you that’s with it.”
Martin explained Nymi’s form factor ended up becoming a wrist band because it was the “easy, first to market, logical approach,” but also mentioned Nymi could potentially adopt a different shape in the future, and also didn’t rule out his company’s ECG algorithm technology finding its way into other forms of wearable technology such as smartwatches. While there are currently no examples of the device being used in this particular way, the Nymi also contains a gyroscope and accelerometer, allowing the device to support gesture-based unlocking techniques, potentially adding an additional level of security to the device.
Nymi analyzes and stores a person’s ECG, a measure of not only your heart rate but also the electrical activity generated by the heart, and then uses this information to authenticate access through the Nymi armband, all via a low energy Bluetooth connection.
An ECG is dependent on the size, position and physiology of someone’s heart, and is unique to each individual, similar to the way every person on earth has a unique fingerprint. In terms of aesthetic, the Nymi looks very similar to the Fitbit, snapping onto the user’s wrist like a bracelet via a magnetic clasp. After this step is completed, all the user needs to do is tap a small metallic plate on the surface of the device to create what Martin calls a “loop circuit,” verifying the wearer’s ECG.
The user is authenticated as long as they continue to wear the Nymi. [Handout/Nymi]
The Nymi continuously monitors the wearer’s ECG, so if the device is cut off or the clasp opens, it deactivates immediately.
Essentially, taping the Nymi creates a complete circuit and allows the device to obtain the information it needs, in turn identifying and authenticating the user. The Nymi makes sure you are who you say you are, and in order to combat variable heart rates, records data over the course of various days to ensure you’ll still be able to access the device you’re unlocking even if your ECG signal is a little abnormal.
Nymi is currently shipping what the company is calling its “Discover Kit,” a relatively early build of Nymi’s technology focused on encouraging creators to come up with new ways to take advantage of the Nymi. When developers get their hands on the Nymi, they’re able to download the armband’s companion application (right now it’s only available on Windows devices, but will be coming to other platforms), a simple computer unlock program, and development apk., a file format used to distribute and install Android application software.
During a recent visit to Nymi’s office, Martin showed off the armband’s ECG capabilities, unlocking a Windows-based computer using only the Nymi, after going through the device’s surprisingly simple initial setup process. Without entering a single password, Martin was able to log into his computer only by taping the Nymi on his wrist.
According to Martin, the next step for Nymi is getting its Discover Kits in the hands of developers. Martin said his company has shipped 700 Nymis to developers and that the company is currently having difficulty fulfilling orders for the device.
The Nymi looks very similar to other wearables like the Fitbit. [Nymi/Handout]
“We’re seeing a lot of creative things in hackathons. Some of them are pretty wacky, like there was one that won a hackathon that used a Muse headband to detect if you’re drunk and then your Nymi band, which lets you start your car, won’t let you start the vehicle if you’re intoxicated. That’s the kind of stuff that’s obviously not being commercialized tomorrow.”
Martin said Nymi’s authentication component isn’t an application in itself really, and instead he envisions the concept enabling developers to create new, more interested experiences with his company’s technology. Moving forward the Nymi’s focus is currently enterprise business use, primarily because security and authentication is often linked closely to that world.
“A lot of our partnerships involve using this [the Nymi] for logging into computers in a network environment, and then we’re seeing sort of what the next logical use case around remote access, or two factor and three factor authentication. We’re also seeing a couple of interesting things come out where it’s not so much unlock and instead is focused on re-locking,” Martin says.
Today we have a mechanism for unlocking our computer — the traditional password — regardless of how frustrating the method can be sometimes, but what we don’t have is a way to automatically “re-lock” a device when you walk away from it, unless you remember to do so manually. Martin feels this is an area where Nymi could forge new ground with its unique ECG technology.
While enterprise is the company’s current focus, Martin also feels the Nymi has significant potential when it comes to eventually evolving into a consumer product, although he admits reaching that point could take some time.
One of the concrete examples of Nymi being used in a way that could appeal to the average consumer, is through “contactless” payments. The company recently partnered with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in order to take advantage of existing point-of-sale terminals and link the Nymi armband to the bank’s Mastercard, adding another level of authentication to the PayPass Tap and Go system that already exists in Canada.
Remembering that frustrating 20 letter monthly work password, that also needs to include a number, capital letter and a random character, could soon become a thing of the past, if the Nymi’s ECG technology becomes more popular.
Reserving the consumer version of the Nymi Band currently costs $149 and the developer Nymi Band Discovery Kit, currently listed on the company’s website, is also priced at $149.

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