MasterCard to test high-tech wristbands as credit card alternatives
A man pays for a purchase with his Nymi Band in this image captured from a demo video for the device. (YouTube/Bionym)
Published Monday, November 3, 2014 8:00AM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 3, 2014 2:24PM EST
It sounds like a gadget out of science fiction: a wristband that links to your bank account, replaces all your passwords, unlocks your smartphone and only works when it's listening to your heartbeat.
But Canadian tech company Bionym is working with MasterCard to make that gadget a reality.
Bionym will release its high-tech, heartbeat-monitoring Nymi Band later this year as part of a pilot project with MasterCard to test the device as a credit card replacement. The wristband will contain a computer chip like the ones found in tap-to-pay debit and credit cards, but the Nymi Band chip won't work unless it's on the account holder's wrist.
Bionym CEO and founder Karl Martin says the joint venture with MasterCard aims to make it easier and safer to make purchases by taking your credit card out of your wallet and putting it on your wrist.
Martin was at the Money 2020 financial innovation convention in Las Vegas on Monday to unveil the pilot project with MasterCard.
"The wristband can essentially know when it's on the rightful owner or not," Martin told CTVNews.ca by phone last week. "You're carrying this thing that knows who you are, so you can tie it with payment credentials to have very convenient and secure payments."
The MasterCard-enabled Nymi Bands will debut later this year, and will be designed to work at existing point-of-sale terminals. Throughout the pilot, MasterCard will monitor how testers use the device to see if people are embracing the idea of paying with their wrists.
"It's exactly the same as the contactless credit cards," Martin said.
But the Nymi Band is much more than a glorified credit card. The sleek, watch-like device can be paired with computers, mobile phones, tablets and even Bluetooth-enabled electronics to automatically unlock or activate them with a simple touch – no password required.
A digital skeleton key
The Nymi Band a skeleton key for your digital identity, and as more devices are built with Bluetooth capability, Martin says the Nymi Band will be able to open more digital doors in everyday life.
"Imagine going into a restaurant where they know your favourite food and your allergies, or a 'smart environment' where the environmental controls adjust to your preferences," he said.
In Martin's restaurant example, the Nymi Band could instantly send your dietary requirements to the restaurant the moment it knows you've walked in the door. And in the 'smart environment' case, the Nymi Band can tell a Bluetooth-enabled thermostat that you like the room temperature at a crisp 19 degrees Celsius.
But what's to stop someone from snatching your wristband and using it to steal your money and identity?
Simply put, the key to your security is your heart.
The wristband includes sensors that learn and memorize the unique electrical signals of the owner's heart – a biological signature that experts call an electrocardiogram. The wristband shuts off when it doesn't detect that electrocardiogram, and it will remain dead if someone else tries to wear it.
"If you open the clasp, or someone cuts it off or took it off you in any way, it would become deactivated," Martin said of the Nymi Band.
It also adapts to changes in heart rate, so going for a jog won't boggle its system.
Martin says the Nymi Band technology is designed to simplify "high-friction" security situations when a Personal Identification Number (PIN), password or identification card would normally be used.
And while the pilot project will test the wristband as a payment alternative, Martin says it could also be programmed to work in many other security situations, including replacing swipe cards at secure buildings. "We're making all of that melt away," he said.
He added that while the device can be programmed with all sorts of digital passwords or PINs, Bionym has no way to look at that information.
"We have designed the product from the ground up to put the user in complete control of their data, so we don't actually collect data," Martin said. "We're a trust and identity company, and we don't want to violate that trust."
How to get it
The Nymi Band pilot project is accepting applications now for MasterCard holders with the Royal Bank of Canada. The tap chip-enabled Nymi Bands will be distributed late this year, but Bionym is also taking pre-orders for wristbands on its website.
Pre-orders for the Nymi Band cost $79. Once the first batch ships late this year or early in 2015, the cost of Nymi Band will rise to $99. Nymi Bands bought through the Bionym store will not come with the bank chip.
The Nymi Band can be paired with many different technologies, but Bionym says its app will be released for iOS, Android, Mac and PC.
The device needs to be charged about once a week and takes three-to-five seconds to sync with the wearer once it's placed on the wrist. The wearer needs to touch the top of the device with his or her other hand to establish the heart-monitoring signature.
The device comes in different colours, and features a sleek, subtle design that doesn't look bulky on the wearer's wrist.
"We know that fashion matters to people," Martin said. "You can't put out technology products to put on people's bodies and not think about fashion."
Toronto-based Bionym's Canadian roots run deep. Martin earned his undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D from the University of Toronto, where he studied engineering science, electrical and computer engineering, with a focus on biometrics and cryptographic systems.
"We, as a company, essentially consider ourselves a spinoff of the University of Toronto," Martin said.
He says the core technology of Nymi Band was developed at U of T, then spun off into the company.
Bionym became a hit in the tech sector last September when it secured $14 million in early investments from companies like MasterCard, Export Development Canada, Ignition Partners and Relay Ventures.
And while Bionym's first product offering will be the wristband, Martin says the technology can be adapted into other wearable devices down the road.
"We're an important capability, but it's not about owning the wrist or owning a part of the body," he said. He adds that wearable technology is still an emerging fad that could go in many directions, so Bionym wants to be able to adapt to how that the fad plays out.
When the Nymi Band does make its commercial debut, it'll soon be competing for wrist space with smartwatches from Apple and Google's Android brand.
But Martin isn't concerned. "Our business is not tied around selling wristbands. It's really about the platform," he said.