On the Internet of Things, your body is the next thing to be networked

Hotels that know you. Shops that welcome you back. The new digital world knows who you are—and what you want

Woman with wireless signals and devices superimposed

A growing constellation of devices and services aims to meet your every need by knowing who you are and what you want (Illustration by Sean McCabe)

At a recent demonstration in Toronto, a biomedical researcher slipped on a wristband and waved it at a laptop, watching as the computer recognized him and unlocked itself. Then he handed the same wristband to his research partner, who put it on and tried the same thing—but this time, the laptop didn’t respond.

Their product, the Nymi, knows who you are—and it can prove it. The wrist-worn device works like an electrocardiogram, measuring the electric signals that come from its wearer’s heartbeat and are as unique a signature as fingerprints. The bracelet can then wirelessly vouch for its owner’s identity for any nearby device that might ask.

The obvious application for a device like this is access: opening physical doors and getting beyond digital passwords. But Karl Martin, co-founder of Bionym, the company that makes the Nymi, has his sights on a bigger goal: “persistent identity”—the idea that the Nymi, or something like it, could make the wearer instantly recognizable to wireless devices everywhere, whether at home or at a coffee shop in London.

There are plenty of networks and sensors in the world, says Martin, but while they detect the presence of humans, they don’t recognize individual identities. “Our thesis is that it’s missing that personal human element: the user.” That’s a gentle way of saying it’s not just your smart fridge that’s going to become a node on the Internet of Things—it’s you. Your identity and, eventually, the very mechanics of your body, are becoming extensions of the Internet that can be tracked, analyzed and, inevitably, marketed to.

The Bionym Nymi wristband

The Bionym Nymi wristband authenticates your digital identity by detecting your heartbeat. (Bionym)

As wearable computers like smartwatches, fitness trackers and bracelets like the Nymi get ever closer to us physically, they’re starting to break down the barrier between biological beings and the networked digital world. On one hand, sensors are gleaning more and more about our bodies themselves. On the other, each of those bodies is becoming recognizable to the network as not just another human, but a unique and distinct entity—and one that presents a saleable proposition.

READ: Rise of the smart city: how urban life is about to change, big time »

Retailers are already deploying Wi-Fi sensors that sniff out the unique (but still anonymous) wireless signals emitted by smartphones, attempting to build profiles of their customers—for instance, how often people come back to the store and which aisles they loiter in. (In the United States, Nordstrom had to backtrack after customers raised a small furor about this technology; however, several tech firms say they’re deploying similar systems for other retailers, in malls, airports and even some neighbourhoods, at the request of local business associations.) And technology like Apple’s iBeacon, an emerging Bluetooth standard, makes it possible to send personalized marketing messages to passing smartphones.

But devices like the Nymi, which can explicitly and reliably vouch for a user’s identity, open up a whole new realm of possibility. For instance, Martin envisions the Nymi working with opt-in retail programs, in which users would volunteer to have their identities verified by surrounding networks in exchange for personalized experiences. An interactive kiosk might reconfigure itself to Nymi wearers’ interests when they approach. A five-star hotel’s lobby might pick up the presence of wearers and send a concierge scuttling up to greet them. A hotel room might unlock itself and adapt its environmental settings. (Nymi isn’t the only technology that facilitates this: facial recognition is being pursued as another way that networks can authenticate users’ identities from a distance.)

The lines between person and network get even more blurred when identifying gadgets are paired with sensors that tune in to the human body’s status, monitoring it in the same way sensors monitor mechanical devices. Some of the most popular wearables today are fitness trackers, gadgets with names like Fitbit, FuelBand and the Jawbone that are all vying to help their wearers quantify their workouts. But these are simple devices, for the most part glorified accelerometers, measuring body movements and drawing inferences from them.

“Imagine having a Fitbit that’s now communicating in concert with the connected things around me so I’m a major part of that equation,” says Tom Erlich, a Toronto-based consultant who specializes in wearables. In kitchens where smart fridges take responsibility for reordering depleted items, networks could base orders on not only users’ preferences but also what wearables have learned about their metabolisms.

READ: How Salesforce plans to bring the wearable tech craze to the enterprise »

If all of this sounds much like a street-corner preacher’s warnings about getting microchipped in end times, the perils of having your body enmeshed in the global network are clear to the boosters, too.

“The powers that be could start to control access based on persistent identity,” says Erlich. “In a dystopian future, I’m not allowed to enter a Pizza Hut because my identity says I’m overweight, and there’s some kind of overweight tax. Or, because I’m online and they know all my health data, my insurance premiums could go up.” This isn’t especially far-fetched in a world where insurance companies are already using sensors in cars to monitor driving habits and adjust policies accordingly.

READ: How Apple, Google and BlackBerry are fighting to control the future of Smart Cars »

For now, the rush to quantify the human body, to assign numbers to its movement and metabolism, is still a one-way street: information flows from us to a smartphone. But Matt Ratto, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, notes that eventually the sensors and the body they’re attached to will become more integrated.

“The really interesting thing is: how do we make digital systems sensible to the body?” he says. “That’s the $15-billion question.”

Designers of an app that alerts the user to low blood-sugar levels, for instance, might think about how technology can transmit its feedback to the body in ways that are more direct than displaying information on a smartphone screen. (Haptic wearable devices that rely on tactile feedback are one example: Sensebridge, a Toronto firm, has produced a simple piece of jewelry that vibrates when the user is facing north.)

The distinction between the physical and the virtual is slowly blurring into non-existence, Ratto says. “We’re used to thinking of the digital as a world apart, as a place we go to. With these new technologies, that’s no longer the case.”

At the end of the Internet of Things, the things are us.