Toronto tech company on the pulse of security bracelets

Device reads heartbeat to open your car door or pay with your credit card

Strapping your wallet, house keys and a database of passwords onto your wrist would make life a lot easier, and one Canadian company has created a way to link all of that information with an extra level of security tied to your heartbeat.

Nymi is one of the latest entrants to the crowded wearables market, which is dominated by the hype of the Apple Watch and a wide selection of fitness trackers.

The Toronto-based company has created a wristband that operates like a virtual key that you wear on your wrist.

Sensing the electrical activity of its user’s heart, the device can be used for a variety of functions, like logging onto your computer using a password, paying with your credit card at the checkout or opening your car door.

Once you take it off your wrist, the device deactivates until you slip it on again and its sensors detect your heartbeat.

In many ways, the Nymi is breakthrough, but with so many other wristbands on the market, selling the concept to mainstream consumers could prove a bigger challenge.

Over the past two years, competition for “body real estate” has intensified, particularly when it comes to the space on your wrist once occupied by a traditional watch, said Nymi co-founder Karl Martin.

But back when he started the company in 2011, under the name Bionym, wearables were mostly still just an idea among developers.

Martin was working as a researcher at the University of Toronto, where he was digging into the possibilities of biometric technology alongside a colleague.

“We thought maybe there’s opportunities here, let’s just start a company and see whether we can figure those out,” he said.

Early brainstorming sessions unearthed a long list of ways that biometrics could be used to take current technology to another level.

One of Martin’s favourite ideas was embedding a heart monitor into a video game console so the controller recognized each player and reacted based on their heart rate.

“Imagine a game knew you weren’t excited, so it would throw more zombies at you,” he said.

That idea never took off, and so Martin turned to a more practical application that compiled your wallet and your keys into a wristband.

The founders began to look for potential licensing opportunities, but their idea was too fresh for many companies to get behind, so they decided to take the project solo and make their own biometrics wristband.

“Wearable technology was just starting to bloom,” he said. “It was sort of like the stars were aligning.”

At this point, the Nymi is still in its early stages, available only as part of a $150 developer kit aimed at encouraging programmers to create new ways to use the wristband.

Over the past year, Nymi has been tested on the arms of a small group of Canadians.

The company partnered with Royal Bank on the RBC PayBand last fall, a pilot project designed to give banking clients more payment options.

Nymi rolled out a larger test earlier this summer by equipping about 100 TD Bank customers in Toronto, Ottawa and Regina with the wristband.

Other banks are expected to join the experiment in the coming months, but it could still be a while before consumers get their hands on a Nymi band.

In the meantime, Nymi is focused on attracting companies who want to boost corporate security in hopes they’ll sign large supply contracts.

Breaking into the fickle consumer market will be a bigger challenge, especially as corporate giants like Apple and Samsung spend millions of dollars marketing smartwatches that work in tandem with their phones, Martin said.

Ultimately, that could make it tough for Nymi to standout, which means the company may be forced to abandon the wristband and return to its roots as a licensor of the technology it created.

“We don’t expect we would be able to truly own the body space,” Martin said. “Three years from now, if it ends up we’re not making the actual, physical device, then so be it.”

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