Given the amount of personal information contained on our smartphones and other computing devices, securing them is more important than ever before. While some phones now come with fingerprint sensors, iris scanners and facial recognition, a prototype device from NEC proposes a different solution to security: ear-based authentication.
The new prototype earbuds are an application of NEC's "hearable device user authentication technology" announced last year. It relies on otoacoustic authentication, which recognizes individuals based on the (very subtle) sounds emitted by the inner ear when the cochlea is stimulated – in this case by a short acoustic signal generated by the earbud. Otoacoustic emissions are how the Nura headphones adjust their sound signature to the wearer and, given everyone has their own, NEC says they can be used like a fingerprint or password for a paired phone.
NEC says the technology can identify the user within one second and with "greater than 99% accuracy." Unlike biometrics based on the iris recognition or fingerprints, you don't need to hold or look at your phone to use it, which will help reduce distraction ... at least up until you actually want to use the phone.
Beyond its potential use as a security device, the Japanese company suggests the earbuds could be used for indoor positioning, tracking changes in posture and eventually measuring pulse rates. Pulse rate tracking is already a feature in smartwatches and fitness trackers, but NEC argues that buds nestled in a user's ears would be more stable and reliable than something waving around on their arms.
These capabilities come courtesy of an internal motion sensor, made up of a gyroscope, accelerometer and a geomagnetic sensor. The earbuds also contain a microphone along with a speaker, and connect to compatible smartphones or computers using Bluetooth Low Energy.
The hearable device is still at concept, but NEC plans to commercialize the technology by the end of 2018 and will release application programming interfaces (API) for otoacoustic authenticication and indoor positioning tech to encourage developers to incorporate it into their apps in future.