Subdermal wearables could unlock real possibilities for enterprise IoT

Wave your hand to access a computer terminal, or touch a power screwdriver to prove that you are authorized to use it, thanks to bodyhacking.

It looks like a slick Jedi move, but it's actually the Internet of Things: When Hannes Sjöblad wants to pay for coffee, he waves his hand in front of the pay station. When he wants to open a door, he waves his hand in front of the digital lock. When he wants to start his car, he waves his hand in front of the ignition. No, he's not Obi-Wan Kenobi saving two rebel droids; Sjöblad is a famous Swedish bodyhacker who has implanted electronics, including a passive Near-Field Communications (NFC) transmitter, into his own hand. So, instead of using his smartphone or smartwatch to activate a payment terminal, a wave of the hand gets the job done.

Speaking to a group of international journalists at CeBIT Preview 2016 in Hannover, Germany, Sjöblad explains that he sees bodyhacking as the next step of wearable computing. Yes, you could use a phone, watch, bracelet, or even a ring to host small electronics, he says, but the real future is embedded.

"First you had devices on your desktop, and then they became portable," he says, showing a picture of a Victrola record player and a Sony Walkman. "The ultimate in portability is when you insert it into your body."

(By the way, Sjöblad waxes enthusiastic about digital teeth as a next-generation implantable technology: Large size, easy to access, and board-certified dentists already trained to insert them.)

Sjöblad, who is Chief Disruption Officer at Epicenter Stockholm, sees the primary driver of bodyhacked wearables as being convenience, to continue to reduce the friction between people and machines. In particular, he sees technologies like NFC and RFID – the same tech that's already inserted into farm animals and pets, he points out – as helping with identification. Sjöblad makes the case that so much of what we carry in our pockets and pocketbooks are functionally serving as identification devices, not only driver's licenses, but also car keys, credit cards, and student badges. These devices say who we are and that we are authorized to do something, like enter a restricted office space, unlock a car, or access a bank account.

Sjöblad's vision is great for consumers, but it's also a potential boon for businesses. A subdermal embedded ID means no more employees forgetting their swipe cards, of course. They could be used to unlock computer terminals or turn on industrial machines.

Single Workers (Put a Ring on It)

The CeBIT Preview was on Wednesday, January 20. The previous Monday, I took advantage of the trip to Germany to visit the Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart. Part of the tour includes a walk through the S-Class assembly building, where workers installed everything from dashboards to body-moulding to seats to the power train to the famous three-pointed Mercedes logo.

At one assembly station, we were shown a large battery-powered screwdriver – the sort of tool you'd see from Bosch or Black & Decker. This one, however, was tied via a wireless network to the factory's central computer. When the operator placed the screwdriver against the screw, sensors on the tool detected which screw as being inserted – and automatically set the proper torque. Not only that, but the computer logged which screw was being installed into which vehicle, what time, and the torque as set and as measured by the tool. According to Bjorn, our tour guide, this type of information is stored for at least 15 years. Talk about a Big Data opportunity: It's not only used to assess that vehicle after an accident, but can be used to look for defect patterns across multiple vehicles.

Hearing Hannes Sjöblad's presentation a couple of days later about bodyhacking, this led to the thought: What if the power drill could detect its operator via an embedded NFC or RFID transmitter, and in addition to logging that information automatically, also verify that the worker was trained and authorized to use that tool? If an unauthorized person tries to use the tool it simply does not work and alerts a supervisor or security of the attempt.

That type of technology could be embedded into all sorts of enterprise and industrial IoT applications, and in ways that would be more responsive, more convenient, less obtrusive, and potentially more effective. (I doubt that trade unions would allow NFC/RFID sensors to be inserted into workers' bodies; rings and wristbands will probably be more acceptable.)

Securing the Subdermal System

Security is a challenge with this technology, Sjöblad admits. There's a small but genuine risk that someone could subvert an RFID or NFC reader and skim the ID code of an authorized user, and use that information to clone the passive transmitter chip. He strongly urges that you never store privacy-critical information using this technique: "Don't store anything on the chip that you wouldn't print on a T-shirt," he says.

The only way to truly have security is to add multi-factor authentication, like one has today with chip-and-PIN credit cards or smartphone-based platforms like Apple Pay. Maybe we would call a subdermal system "wrist and PIN"? Sjöblad was quick to assure journalists that passive NFC can't be used to track individuals in public; the NFC sensor must be within a few inches of the chip in order to power the implant and read its data.

Obi-Wan Kenobi waves his hand: Doors unlock and open. Hannes Sjöblad waves his hand: Doors unlock and open. The future isn't far, far away after all.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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