Fingerprints Are Passé. Use Your Heartbeat To Unlock Your Phone

Nymi is a wearable device that uses the unique pattern of your heartbeat to authenticate your identity to multiple devices.

Like most wearable tech, the Nymi looks and acts like science fiction: It’s a sleek wristband (like the Nike FuelBand or Jawbone Up) that senses the unique pattern of your heartbeat and uses that pattern as a “password” of sorts to unlock your other hardware (such as your smartphone, your laptop, or even your car) via a Bluetooth signal. This concept trailer depicts a Nymi user going through an entire day without having to use PINs, passwords, or keys–all he does is activate his wristband when he wakes up, and it takes care of everything until he goes to sleep.


It took me several rounds of conversation with Karl Martin, CEO of Bionym (the biometric technology company that makes Nymi) to tease out the details of the device’s actual user experience. The only out-of-the-box functionality that Bionym provides is “basic personal device unlocking–phones, tablets, and computers,” Martin says. Everything else depicted in the video–the car-door unlocking, the wireless payment procedure, the personalized hotel experience–isn’t confirmed to exist yet, although Martin assures that “we have a large number of developers signed on to develop for and integrate the Nymi … A large part of our activities this fall will be centered around the developer community so that there will be many applications available once we deliver the Nymi in early 2014.”

So, the Nymi lets you skip the step of punching in the unlock PIN on your phone or the login screen of your laptop. Neat, but is it worth wearing a funny wristband for? If your job (or simply your temperament) compels you to have all your personal devices locked by default already, Nymi could be a nice convenience. And it certainly sounds more secure than a fingerprint scanner like the one gracing the new iPhone 5S, which isn’t exactly Mission: Impossible-grade.

But that association between biometrics and so-called security might just be the thing holding it back from mainstream adoption. Yes, passwords are broken and two-factor authentication is a pain, but most of us are willing to get by without resorting to spy-movie tactics. Right now, the design storyline of biometrics is all about what they help you avoid (hacking, identity theft, etc.), but what if it were about what biometrics could help you experience? Like, say, effortless personalization?

The most seductive part of Nymi’s concept video isn’t when the hero invokes some hokey hands-free gesture to open his car’s trunk, or even when his hotel door automatically unlocks for him (really, are keycards that much of a pain point?). It’s when he walks into that hotel room and the lighting, TV, and temperature all magically tune themselves to his preferences. I highly doubt Nymi will be bringing that kind of functionality to Holiday Inns next year, but I can see the appeal of having my heartbeat log me–and my preferences–into, say, the family iPad when I pick it up. Positioning the Nymi not as a biometric security guard, but as a heartbeat-powered concierge, might be the smartest design move Bionym and its cadre of developers could make.

[Learn more about Nymi]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.