If you thought the world was smart now, prepare for the super intelligence spurred by Google’s latest life-changing project: the physical web.
The physical web aims to assign objects and devices with an easily detectable and accessible URL that allows your smart device to connect and communicate with the world around you.
How the Physical Web Works
While the physical web will ultimately function as a rebuttal of individual smart apps, it is currently run as an app that tries to not feel like one. Instead of having to directly interact with the app, the physical web functions in the background and monitors beacons as you pass them.
Rather than receiving endless notifications about smart objects you pass, you only see these accessible objects in a list when you are interested in browsing. The list is ordered like a typical Google search and takes into account your browsing history, preferences, and location, to personalize the list of objects around you.
For example, connect to the URL of a bus stop, and you can find out the bus schedule for the day and when the next bus is due to arrive. Connect to a vending machine or parking meter and you can pay using a mobile wallet. Walk into a store, and its URL allows you to automatically integrate your in-store and online shopping experiences.
Scott Jenson, a designer on the project, says, “Our core premise is that you should be able to walk up to any ‘smart’ physical object (e.g. A vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car) and interact with it without first downloading an app. The user experience of smart objects should be much like links in a web browser: i.e. just tap and use.”
Why You Should Care About the Physical Web
This project has a number of implications for everyday interactions. The physical web immediately connects you with everything that’s around you, from establishments to inanimate objects. This means you’ll have more information available to you than ever before right in the palm of your hand. Constant connection with the world around you means being better able to plan your day, improve communication, take care of chores, entertain yourself, and accomplish any number of tasks more easily.
This type of connection leads to a number of shifts in culture. For example, the physical web’s human-to-object connections may usher in the responsive city movement. Matt Stempeck, a contributor to the Harvard Business Review, explains, “A responsive city is one where services, infrastructure, and even policies can flexibly respond to the rhythms of its denizens in real-time.” The term “responsive city” is taken from a book by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford that highlights the eventual intersection of government with the technology citizens use daily. This movement means an integration of government information, devices, and services with people’s behaviors that intends to improve the functionality of a city as a whole.
Essentially, the physical web and responsive cities would make The Internet of Things a reality.
Are Apps a Thing of the Past?
Apps are currently the primary components of connections and interactions between humans and devices, but that may not always be the case. In the future, a service like the physical web will reduce the fragmentation and disconnect we experience every day using multiple apps to accomplish tasks. Instead of having an app to control your living room lighting, another to control your stereo system, and another to control door locks, the physical web would give you direct access to each item from a single interface.
This doesn’t necessarily mean all apps phase out as the physical web moves in. You will probably still have games and organizational apps that won’t connect to other objects and thus might not connect with the physical web.
Along with the advent of the physical web, the app industry will likely take a hit, particularly companies who spent time and money developing individualized apps for their products and services. App developers will find themselves shifting mindsets from individual apps to thinking in connectivity patterns as they link objects with smartphones and larger networks on the physical web.
The physical web signifies a new wave of technology and communication destined to change the world and how you interact with it for decades to come. Still in infancy stages but available through open-source coding, the physical web shows promise for a new way to connect with each other and the objects and devices that comprise people’s day-to-day lives.
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