8 Futuristic Password Replacements (6 Use Your Body)


The first computer passwords were introduced in the early 1960s, thanks to an MIT computer scientist named Fernando Corbató. These new digital keys were useful, but also kind of a pain. There were regular security breaches, and people hated having to memorize multiple passwords for multiple accounts.

More than 50 years later, not much has changed. High-profile companies are still plagued by hackers, and millions of our accounts are breached each year. And it’s no wonder—our most commonly used passwords are appallingly simple: 123456 and password topped last year’s list. Corbató calls the current state of Internet security a “nightmare,” admitting even his own list of passwords is three typed pages long.

Luckily, there are a number of cool projects in the works aimed at replacing the classic PIN. Here are a few.

1. Your Brainprint

Maybe you still get a little giddy every time you unlock your phone with your fingerprint. If so, prepare to be amazed. Researchers from Binghamton University say your "brainprint"—the unique brainwave reaction you have to certain stimuli, like words—could someday be used to unlock our accounts and devices. In a new study in the journal Neurocomputing, a computer was able to identify volunteers by their brainprints with 94 percent accuracy. Brainprint passwords won’t become ubiquitous any time soon—right now they require users to strap some electrodes to their head—but they could be used in "high-security physical locations" like the Pentagon, researchers say.

2. Your Heartbeat

Like your brain, your heartbeat also has its own unique signature in the wave patterns created by your heart’s electrical activity. A startup called Bionym has created a bracelet that turns this signature into a key. Once you snap the Nymi bracelet on, it uses an electrocardiogram sensor to verify your identity. The idea is that the bracelet would then sync with other devices, from your computer and phone to your car door and hotel room. You wouldn’t have to authenticate every time you want to unlock something, as the bracelet keeps you “signed in” until you take it off. A built-in motion sensor means you could unlock different objects with a specific twist of the wrist. But the future of Nymi will depend on its creators finding partners and developers who want to incorporate its functionality into their designs. Until then, it’s just another smart-ish bracelet.

 3. Your Face

Unlike heartbeat and brainprint authentication, facial recognition is already fairly easy to implement. Earlier this year Intel released True Key, a password manager app that uses your unique facial characteristics to verify your identity. The app takes a photo of your face and remembers your features, “like your facial math—the distance between your eyes and your nose.” True Key works on Windows computers and Android devices but not yet on Apple products. It will be free to use on 15 websites but $19.95 a year for any more than that.

4. Your Google Searches

A project called ActivPass would use your digital activity, and your own recollection of that activity, to confirm your identity. The project comes from researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, and the University of Texas at Austin. They created an app that monitors smartphone activity, as well as an algorithm to mine that activity for events that could be used as passwords. For example, ActivPass might ask you who the first person to message you this morning was, or what terms you Googled yesterday. The questions have to be unique enough that no one else could answer them, but not so obscure that they can’t jog a user’s memory.

The researchers found we’re pretty bad at remembering anything after about a day, so recent activity is the most useful. The questions generated by ActivPass worked effectively as password prompts, and users produced the right answer 95 percent of the time.

 5. Sound Verification Between Your Computer and Your Phone

Early last year, Google acquired a startup called SlickLogin that wanted to use sounds as passwords. The application was a bit complicated: when a user wanted to be authenticated, a website would play a nearly inaudible, unique sound that would be picked up by an app on the user’s phone. The app would recognize the sound, therefore confirming a user’s identity and that their phone is in the same room as their computer. Right now, it’s not entirely clear what Google plans to do with SlickLogin.

 6. The Veins in Your Palm

In April, PayPal’s global head of developer evangelism, Jonathan Leblanc, suggested our unique vein patterns could kill the traditional password. A tool called BiyoWallet is already on it, letting users pay for things at retail shops by placing their palms on an infrared scanner. “Palm vein patterns are secure because you can’t leave traces of your palm vein patterns like you can with fingerprints, and recreating a hand with flowing blood is practically impossible,” says BiyoWallet’s website.

 7. Your Stomach Acid

Motorola has created a “vitamin” that could turn an entire person into a walking authentication device. The high-tech pill is activated by stomach acid and emits a signal to communicate with various devices so long as it’s still inside your body. “It means that my arms are like wires, my hands are like alligator clips—when I touch my phone, my computer, my door, my car, I’m authenticated in,” Regina Dugan, former director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now head of Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects, told Entrepreneur. Sound ultra-futuristic? The vitamin is already FDA approved.

 8. Electronic Tattoos

Stretchy, sensor-packed materials applied to the skin could also be used to identify a human being in place of a password. Motorola is already working on this with a company called MC10, which has been making what’s known as the “Biostamp” since 2012. The Biostamp looks like a temporary tattoo and is filled with flexible electronics that can bend and stretch with the skin. It monitors and transmits information about its wearer's vital signs, including pulse and blood-oxygen level, body temperature, blood pressure, and even electrical activity in the brain and heart. This could be incredibly useful for health monitoring, but Motorola sees a different potential. "What we plan to do is work with them to advance a tattoo for authentication," said Dugan. “10- to 20-year-olds might not want to wear a watch on their wrists, but you can bet they will wear a tattoo—if only to piss off their parents.”

As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time

Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:


1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg


1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange


1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.


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