Fingerprint Identification Is Out. Nymi Is In

Using your fingerprint to unlock your iPhone is a pretty cool technological innovation, and it seems to be the harbinger of using biological data to interact with our computers. But one small company is trying to jump way ahead of the curve by using something else that’s just as unique to you as your fingerprint: your heartbeat.

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The Nymi bracelet looks like a lot of other wearable tech: sleek and unassuming. It’s actually quite stylish. But it contains some very impressive technology that could change how we interact with a wide range of devices, from our computer to our cars. By pressing your finger to the top of the bracelet, you complete an electrical circuit that allows the bracelet to monitor the electrical signals that are transmitted by your heart. An electrocardiogram (ECG) works on the same principle.

After putting on the Nymi and confirming your identity, the bracelet continually ensures that you’re the actual owner of the device by making sure that you don’t take it off. If the bracelet is taken off, you’ll need to re-verify your identity—this acts as a safety feature and ensures that no one will be able to access your things if you lose the bracelet. You’ll also need to have your smartphone with you, making it a two-factor system.

Once you’ve verified your identity, the Nymi is ready to use. And the team behind it is developing some pretty amazing stuff. If you watch the video below, you’ll get an idea of some of the things that they have in mind. From unlocking your computer and opening the trunk of your car to checking in for a flight and opening your hotel room door, the Nymi has huge potential for changing the way we interact with the digital world.

The video and the principles behind the Nymi bring up a lot of questions. Is a person’s ECG really unique? Can an ECG be monitored from a bracelet? What happens if you’re stressed and your heartrate goes up? Fortunately, Bionym (the makers of the Nymi) anticipated a lot of these questions and have answered them in their FAQ. They say that ECG is unique and can be reliably monitored from the bracelet.

Perhaps more importantly, they say that changes in heartrate, whether from stress, medication, or exercise, will not affect the ability of the device to identify your ECG. Because it looks at the shape of your ECG wave, it should be immune to these fluctuations. How this will play out among the wider population is unclear. Bionym is confident in the bracelet’s ability to accurately monitor ECG despite changes in heartrate, but with the device still in beta, we won’t really know until release.

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So what kind of capabilities can we expect the Nymi to have? The concept video above shows it doing some really impressive things, but how many of those have actually been done, and how many are speculative? It’s hard to tell, but Nymi’s blog does indicate that there’s significant interest from the automotive, home, payment, airline, hotel, and retail sectors. The bracelet not only verifies the identity of the user, but it also monitors movement, enabling gesture-based control of devices, and Bluetooth connections, allowing it to keep track of which devices are close.

Nymi recently inked their first deal with another tech company, showing the world that there is indeed at least someone else out there willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to biometric identification and app integration. PasswordBox, a password manager similar to LastPass and 1Password, has announced that they’ll be partnering with Nymi to offer seamless integration. You’ll be able to authenticate your identity to unlock your device, enter iOS app passwords, and enter website passwords through Safari on iOS, all by placing your finger on the bracelet just once.

Beyond this, we don’t really know what to expect from Nymi when it launches later this year. Bionym says that they’re working with developers to create apps that will be ready to use when the bracelet starts shipping, but there isn’t much information about the exact type of apps. The website states that it will be able to unlock smart devices, and that iOS, Mac, Android, and PC apps will be available upon launch. Bionym has also announced that Nymi will ship with a built-in Bitcoin wallet, suggesting that they’re aggressively pursuing financial uses of the device.

This seems like a smart move, as recent events like the Mt. Gox hacking and Heartbleed have shown us that financial data (and all data, really) stored online could be at risk. Using a two-factor (or even three-factor) authentication that includes a unique biomarker would certainly put many minds at ease when it comes to data security.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what the Nymi will be able to do when it launches. Whether or not there’s a lot of support from other companies will likely be the most important factor in determining whether Nymi is a game-changer or a dud. Bionym is currently running a discounted pre-ordering program, allowing the first 25,000 users to pre-order the Nymi for $79 before it goes up to its normal price of $99, and it seems likely that a high number of pre-orders will go a long way in convincing other companies that this is technology worth investing in.

Personally, I hope that Bionym hits it out of the park with the Nymi. It’s a really innovative, cool idea, and it has a lot of potential, not only for apps and interfacing with other technology, but for some really great home developing if the API is open. The current release date is “mid-2014,” so it’s tough to say when we’ll be able to find out. If all goes as planned, the Nymi could be a big part of our digital lives in the very near future.

What do you think? Would you be willing to try something like the Nymi? Or will you wait until it’s in its third or fourth generation before you’re willing to risk it?

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