Heartbeats may be the keys of the future

Biometric identifiers, in one form or another, have been a part of the security industry for some time. While most biometric access control solutions use a fingerprint or an iris scan to identify an individual, Toronto-based Bionym is taking a unique approach to the market with a newly launched solution called the Nymi. Unlike other biometric devices that make the user submit to a physical read of their finger or eye, the Nymi is a wearable authentication device that uses a person’s heartbeat to verify their identity.

According to Karl Martin, co-founder and CEO of Bionym, the idea of using someone’s heartbeat as a way to uniquely identify them goes back nearly 40 years. Over the past 10 years, however, he said that research groups around the world have been working to develop automated robot systems that could use electrocardiograms (ECGs) as a biometric. Researchers at the University of Toronto, including Bionym co-founder and CTO Foteini Agrafioti, recently made a breakthrough by finding an automated way of extracting features that relate to the shape of a heart wave that are unique to each person, explained Martin.

"It was a very robust method that could work in the real world. A lot of the other research in the area, they used methods that involved finding very specific points on the wave and looking at relative measures between those points. It’s very unreliable," said Martin "The method at the University of Toronto looked at the overall shape and was not as sensitive to things like noise, which you see in real life. By looking at the overall shape and unique algorithms to extract those features, it was found that you could have a relatively reliable way to recognize people using a real world ECG signal."

Martin, who along with Agrafioti worked on biometric, security and cryptography technologies as doctoral students at the University of Toronto, said they founded Bionym as a way to commercialize their work.

"We decided there was an opportunity to make a more complete solution with our technology," he said. "We looked at what was happening with wearable technology and we realized that’s what we had with biometric recognition using the heart. It married very well with wearable technology and we could essentially create this new kind of product that was an authenticator that you wear rather than something embedded in a mobile phone, tablet or computer."

Although other promising biometric technologies and companies have made a splash in the security industry only to flame out a short time later, Martin believes that the approach his company is taking sets it apart from others.

"We’re really driven by our vision, which is to enable a really seamless user experience in a way that is still very secure. So many of the security products and the biometric technologies out there - it’s almost kind of like a solution looking for a problem," said Martin. "Somebody comes up with a new method and says, 'oh, we can use it like this,' but the question is what really new are you enabling? In many cases, you’re talking about access control – whether it’s physical or logical access control. Fingerprint is still sort of the most common because it’s robust, people know it, they understand it, but the other technologies haven’t really brought anything new to the table. What we’re doing with this technology and bringing something new to the table is it’s not so much in the core technology itself using the ECG, it’s the marriage of that technology in a wearable form factor."

Because the Nymi is wearable, Martin said that identity can be communicated wirelessly in a simpler, more convenient way than what’s previously been available.

"The person only has to do something when they put the device on, so they put it on, they become authenticated and then they can essentially forget about it," he added. "We’ve had a somewhat consumer focus because we are very focused on a convenient user experience, but we found that we actually were able to achieve almost that Holy Grail, which is convenience plus security."

Martin believes that the company’s technology will be applicable to both physical and logical access control. In addition to authenticated identity and proximity, Martin said that the company is also delivering motion capabilities in this new solution.

"There is an embedded motion sensor which will allow for simple gesture recognition and that’s a way for a user to indicate their intent," said Martin. "Do I want to unlock physical doors or not when I’m there? Do I want to unlock the front door of a car versus the trunk of a car?"

Martin said that the company will be conducting beta testing this fall and he expects that they will be able to release the Nymi wristband next April.

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