Instead of inserting a card or scanning a smartphone to make a payment, a new technology enables you to simply touch the machine with your finger. The prototype lets the body act as the link between a card or smartphone and the reader or scanner, making it possible to transmit information just by touching a surface.
While wearing the prototype as a watch, a user’s body can be used to send information such as a photo or password when touching a sensor on a laptop. While the ability to unlock devices using fingerprints has been available, the new technology does not rely on biometrics — it relies on digital signals.
The technology works by establishing an “internet” within the body that smartphones, smartwatches, pacemakers, insulin pumps, and other wearable or implantable devices can use to send information. These devices typically communicate using Bluetooth signals that tend to radiate out from the body. A hacker could intercept those signals from 30 feet away. The new technology instead confines signals within the body by coupling them in an electro-quasistatic range that is much lower on the electromagnetic spectrum than typical Bluetooth communication. This mechanism is what enables information transfer by only touching a surface.
Even if your finger hovers just one centimeter above a surface, information wouldn’t transfer through this technology without a direct touch. This would prevent a hacker from stealing private information by intercepting the signals. The capability was demonstrated in the lab by having a person interact with two adjacent surfaces. Each surface was equipped with an electrode to touch, a receiver to get data from the finger, and a light to indicate that data had transferred. If the finger directly touched an electrode, only the light of that surface turned on. The fact that the light of the other surface stayed off indicated that the data didn’t leak out. Similarly, if a finger hovered as close as possible over a laptop sensor, a photo wouldn’t transfer without a direct touch.
Credit card machines and payment apps use a more secure alternative to Bluetooth signals called near-field communication to receive a payment from tapping a card or scanning a phone. The new technology would add the convenience of making a secure payment in a single gesture without having to take a device out of your pocket. The technology could also replace key fobs or cards that currently use Bluetooth communication to grant access into a building. Instead, a person might just touch a door handle to enter.
Like machines that scan coupons, gift cards, and other information from a phone, using this technology would require surfaces everywhere to have the right hardware for recognizing a finger. The software on the device that a person is wearing would also need to be configured to send signals through the body to the fingertip — and have a way to turn off so that information, such as a payment, wouldn’t be transferred to every surface equipped to receive it.