October of 2014 was a big month for Technology Announcements. At the pace our industry is moving, every month is a big month for these sorts of announcements. With all the innovation that is going on, it’s easy to miss the minor technologies that could fundamentally change the ways we interact with technology. One of these technologies that is worth a second look is the Physical Web.
Started as a side project out of Google, but run independently from the broader organization, the Physical Web is a set of ideas and standards about how human beings and technology should interact.
Story 1 – Retail
You walk into a Starbucks and on your phone’s lock screen you see a notification: “New Physical Devices Available”. You click on this notification and get a list of interactions available and offered by this store:
- Jukebox Control – Pick a song from our approved library and add it to the queue
- Digital Order – Place your order digitally and pay for it using your Starbucks card
- App of the Day – Download the Starbucks app or song of the day
Each of these interactions are currently available in Starbucks stores around the country (Except Jukebox Control). The way you discover them is through signage and little cards next to the cash register, and through word of mouth. When you discover one of these capabilities, you most often have to search for them via your phone, type in a difficult URL, or scan a QR code.
Each of these interactions create friction for customers today. These experiences aren’t packaged and seamless, and often involve a fair amount of work on the hand of the customers in the form of typing, signing in, download applications, etc.
With the Physical Web, Starbucks would create one or many bluetooth beacons that broadcast the available physical services in a standardized way that phones can recognize and interact with.
This simple ability for my phone to connect me to these services without downloading a location or business specific application, while still protecting my privacy and security would create magical experiences.
Story 2 – Home Control
More and more devices are being connected to the internet every day. From toaster ovens to thermostats, and everything inbetween. Today for each device you add to your home, you need a custom application that speaks a custom protocol.
Tomorrow, after you plug your devices in, they may just show up on your phone automatically. Security will still be a problem that isn’t going away. You will likely need to type in an ID or press a button on your device. Devices would have the flexibility to lock a device to only you, or to share with others in your home, or even visitors. The overall interaction would still be much simpler than what we have today.
The idea behind the Physical Web is that instead of all of the custom programming and protocols that have been built up around the Internet of Things, we can return to the same technology that made the web interoperable and standardized, the URL.
By using Beacon technology, homes and stores and offices can setup any number of web-based services that users already know how to interact with. This, combined with the latest and greatest in HTML5-based application development means that we have another solution to the problem of discovery and relevancy.
If a device manufacturer such as Nest wanted to, they could still build and ship a native application. Android has built-in capabilities for native applications to interpret and act on URLs. This would allow them to offer a superior user experience for frequent use cases where discoverability isn’t a problem. The nice thing about the combination of the Physical Web and native applications would be that the Physical Web could help users download and install the right applications.
While this has been a slow sleepy project without a huge pace of innovation, there have been minor leaks that Google I/O this year will be taking advantage of the Physical Web to offer interaction throughout the conference. If this happens, it will likely happen in conjunction with standardized support throughout Android for the Physical Web, so we may be seeing Physical Web devices and services still this year.