by Al Sacco

Nymi Band uses your heartbeat to secure mobile payments

Aug 11, 2015
Consumer ElectronicsPayment SystemsWearables

A Canadian company claims to have enabled the 'world's first biometrically authenticated wearable payment using your heartbeat.' The pilot is a small, consumer-oriented program, but the target audience is much larger.

You may pay for groceries with your smartphone and a connected credit card, via Apple Pay or Google Wallet. You may have seen some techy-type at your local drug store pay for his toothpaste and toilet paper with an Apple Watch. What you’ve probably not yet witnessed is someone making a secure payment with a tap of the wrist and biometric, heartbeat authentication. But if Canadian company Nymi has its way, you will. 

Nymi this week announced the successful trial of its Nymi Band wrist-worn heart-rate monitor as an NFC mobile payments device. It uses heart rate, or electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), measurements to verify your identity. Nymi first discussed its plans to bring payment authentication to its Band last fall, and today, the system is in action, albeit limited action, in Canada. 

Nymi partnered with TD Bank Group and MasterCard for the initial trial, which began a month ago when the first Nymi payment was made in Canada. More than 100 TD users in Toronto, Ottawa and Regina, many of whom are TD bank employees, are currently testing the Nymi Band’s contactless payment functionality as part of the closed pilot program.

Additional Canadian banks, including RBC Royal Bank, are expected to launch similar Nymi pilots later this year. Nymi says it expects thousands of payments to be made using its Band before the end of the year. Karl Martin, Nymi CEO, wouldn’t say when, or if, Nymi Bands or technology will be available in the United States or Europe. However, the company is working with partner companies in these countries.

How Nymi Band works

After Nymi pilot users set up their devices for the first time and create authentication profiles, they need only put on the Band, which has a sensor on its bottom side that sits on the wrist, and then tap a finger to another sensor on its upper panel to authenticate. (Nymi added payment-card information for individual users beforehand as part of the closed pilot.)

Unlike popular fitness trackers that also measure heart rates, Nymi uses an electrical signal instead of an optical one, so it requires two points of contact for that initial authentication, according to Martin. To make payments, Nymi users simply hold their devices close to compatible contactless payment terminals for a second or two.

The Nymi Band is not just for payments. It’s designed to be used for a variety of authentication purposes, and it can also unlock PCs, Macs and smartphones along with Nymi desktop and mobile apps. (Check out the video below for more on Nymi and its future potential uses.)

Nymi, mobile payments and the enterprise 

The NFC-enabled pilot devices work with any contactless, point of sale (PoS) terminals that support NFC and MasterCard’s PayPass. Martin says that is “most” contactless terminals in Canada. Retailers with these systems don’t need to do anything to support Nymi payments, according to Martin.

Today, Nymi Band is available only as part of a $150 developer kit, and that version doesn’t include an NFC chip, so it cannot be used for payments. Martin says his team is not currently marketing the device to consumers, though it has many potential consumer applications. Instead, Martin says Nymi is focusing on the enterprise, where multifactor authentication is increasingly important.

“In enterprise, where security matters, multifactor authentication is a requirement, and all the tools, to be honest, suck,” Martin says. “We’re in this position where the market is really ripe for multifactor authentication applications that work across physical and logical access. It’s our primary area of focus today.”

Nymi also hopes to eventually build its authentication tech into popular wearables from other manufacturers. “You should expect to see Nymi technology inside other wearables as well,” Martin says.

How Nymi payments stack up to the competition

The Nymi payments concept is similar to using Apple Pay on the Apple Watch, but in theory, it should be more secure because it use a unique biorhythm for authentication. The Apple Watch needs only to be unlocked and to remain in contact with its wearer’s skin to make Apple Pay purchases.

Martin says Nymi is more convenient than using a smartphone for mobile payments, because you don’t need to take a device out of your pocket or launch a app. Nymi’s system could be more attractive to banks and financial institutions because it does not want to become a middleman, he says. “We’re different than Apple because we’re not trying to get into the middle of the transaction. Banks will see that as an attraction, instead of having to go to a new model.”

Nymi’s goal to have its technology embedded in other popular devices means it potentially could be used for all sorts of authentication purposes in addition to payments and basic device unlocks. Of course, the pilot is really just a proof of concept at this point, and Apple Pay is much more widely available than Nymi Band. 

You can learn more about the Nymi Band and the mobile payments pilot on the company’s website.