Sept. 6, 2013 -- Think of all the ways that movie spies fool security systems that use the human body. They could lift someone's fingerprint from a discarded beer bottle or get an eye pattern by photographing someone's eyeball.
But a new company called Bionym is going a little deeper than most spies would go. Bionym's debut product Nymi will read a user's heart rhythm through an electrocardiogram (ECG) as a means of identification. Nymi is currently available for pre-order for $79 and is slated to ship early next year.
The company imagines users strapping Nymi to their wrists the first thing in the morning. It quickly reads the wearer's heartbeat and determines whether the wearer and the identity stored in the bracelet are one in the same. From there, Nymi would act as an interface to other electronics, broadcasting the owner's identity to computers, mobile devices, cash registers and smart appliances.
The heart may seem like an unusual place for an identifier, but Karl Martin, the CEO of Bionym, said that Nymi's authentication procedure is rooted in good science. "All ECGs have the same general shape, but some have different slopes or sharper peaks," he told ABC News. "We have automated algorithms that extract those types of features and create a unique template."
Martin added that there are plenty of differences to differentiate one person's ECG from any other person's. "The uniqueness of an ECG is about the same level as that of a fingerprint's," he said.
Christopher Ellis, a heart rhythm specialist at the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, said that's interesting in theory but is not sure how it will work in practice. "I read about 30,000 ECGs a year and can tell the difference between a normal one and an abnormal one," he said. "But if you take two healthy 18-year-old boys and look at their ECGs, they'll look pretty similar."
He also said that reading ECGs from the wrist isn't the best place to do so. "It's like looking at fingerprints. They might have a lot of unique information, but you won't be able to read any of it if they're all smudged."
The thought of putting your identity into an updated slap bracelet might make some users feel uneasy. However, Martin has made security a top priority for the Nymi. "We have a chip called the secure element that encrypts all the information coming out of the wrist band," he said. "The data is encrypted at a hardware level."
In addition, Nymi is de-activated once unfastened from the owner's wrist. In order to reactivate it, the user has to strap it to his or her wrist for a new ECG reading. "If a thief takes the bracelet in the middle of a night, it's pretty much useless because they won't be able to authenticate."
Though Nymi isn't intended for any type of medical diagnosis, Ellis sees it as something that could be useful to the medical community under the right circumstances. "It could help pick up rhythm problems years ahead of an incident," he said. "You could manage those patients well in advance."
Martin knows that while Bionym might see Nymi heading down one path, outside developers might see it heading in a completely different direction. As a result, Bionym will release an early version to developers for their imaginations to run wild.
Regardless of the path Nymi takes, it will still end up knowing its users by heart.