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Forget fingerprints, Canadian device uses heartbeat as a password

Three Nymi devices, made by the Toronto-based company Bionym, which read a users heart rhythm for identification purposes, are shown in this undated handout photo. Bionym hopes the technology can replace online passwords.


Karl Martin was thrilled when Apple officially unveiled the fingerprint-reading technology that's built into the new iPhone 5S – even though it could be perceived as competition for his Toronto-based business.

He's hoping the hype around fingerprint scanning will create excitement around other biometrics technologies, including the Nymi, his company's bracelet that promises to read a user's heart rhythm and use it as a form of authentication that could replace online passwords, keys and other security measures.

Bionym is currently taking pre-orders for the device, expected to be released next spring, for $79.

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The device takes an electrocardiogram when a user wearing it on their wrist touches it with their opposite hand. Martin, CEO of Bionym, says a cardiac rhythm is about as unique as a fingerprint, so the device could be used to confirm a person's identity and then seamlessly unlock any devices or accounts they regularly use.

A promotional video that highlights some potential future uses of the technology shows a car's doors unlocking as a user wearing a Nymi approaches. His PC automatically signs him in as he sits down at his desk and a tablet is unlocked and comes to life when he picks it up. He's able to pay for a coffee by swiping his wrist in front of a cash register and his hotel room's door opens for him without needing to pull out a key.

"We realized if we put identity authentication on the body, on something that a person wears, it actually enables a ton of new kinds of applications and new ways to interact with technology," says Martin.

"It has the possibility of replacing passwords and PINs across multiple devices. It also means that the user does not have to do anything or think about their identity because it's just there (in the device)."

The Nymi unlocks and locks devices based on a user-specified proximity setting, which adds another layer of security, he says.

"Let's say you decide that when you're within a metre then it will always be unlocked, you don't have to do anything. You pick it up, it's unlocked," says Martin.

"If you leave it on the table and walk away, as soon as you're more than a metre away it will automatically lock."

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When the Nymi ships to buyers it will be able to automatically unlock Google Android mobile phones and tablets. Martin says more functionality might be added before launch but the company is also counting on software developers to come up with their own uses for the device.

"By the time we get this into people's hands in early next year there will be plenty of third party applications and integrations as well."

The company isn't threatened by the biometrics functionality in the new iPhone, Martin says.

"In many ways what we're doing with Nymi is essentially a proposal saying, 'This is what the future could look like.' Apple has put out their proposal as well, we think it's very old school thinking," he says.

"I think we hit a nerve with people wanting to manage their passwords, manage their online life and all their devices."

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