Exploring URL discovery with the Physical Web

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

One of the emerg­ing con­cepts that I’m fas­ci­nat­ed and excit­ed by is the Phys­i­cal Web. If you haven’t heard of this, a brief and very coarse sum­ma­ry is that it’s the idea of trans­mit­ting URLs from bea­con devices, com­mon­ly using low-ener­gy Blue­tooth (BLE). Cur­rent bea­con schemes are large­ly based on Apple’s iBea­con pro­to­col, which trans­mits a unique ID that requires an app receiv­er to decode and turn into an action. The Phys­i­cal Web’s dif­fer­ence is that URL trans­mis­sion requires no app, decen­tral­is­ing the process.

Mak­ing any device able to trans­mit a URL is rich with pos­si­bil­i­ties: from super low-fric­tion dis­cov­er­abil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion about near­by places (imag­ine a page of search results show­ing only the things imme­di­ate­ly around you), to imme­di­ate inter­ac­tion with near­by phys­i­cal objects. While I’ve still yet to actu­al­ly build any­thing using the Phys­i­cal Web idea, I’ve start­ed to explore what I think it can be use­ful for.

I think that one of the areas the Phys­i­cal Web will pros­per in is retail, start­ing with the very sim­ple idea of show­ing the shops that are around you in an enclosed space (com­mon­ly a mall or shop­ping cen­tre). If each shop had a bea­con (or bea­con swarm), a per­son enter­ing the space would have an imme­di­ate idea of what they could find with­in, say, 30m of them. This wouldn’t replace a map, but would at least indi­cate the avail­able vari­ety of outlets.

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You could argue that this same sce­nario could be solved with an app; the app install is a small bar­ri­er to entry, and the app would have to be cen­tral­ly man­aged to keep up to date with all the stores in the shop­ping cen­tre, but I expect the line-up of stores remains most­ly sta­ble and updat­ing wouldn’t be a major hassle.

But using the Phys­i­cal Web would mit­i­gate even these small prob­lems: there would be zero install, no require­ment for cen­tralised updat­ing, and no app devel­op­ment time required at all.

As an aside, why not com­bine the two? An app shell which aggre­gates URLs for all the shops in the space and fur­ther crawls their pages for struc­tured data show­ing offers, exclu­sive dis­counts, etc? There is still the app install bar­ri­er to pass, but once installed the con­tent would all come from local, decen­tralised sources.

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Beyond the mall, the Phys­i­cal Web would become even more use­ful in spaces where there’s a high rate of change in the ven­dors that are present on any giv­en day — for exam­ple, a street mar­ket. If each ven­dor has a bea­con, vis­i­tors to the mar­ket could eas­i­ly see who’s sell­ing that day.

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I can see there being an advan­tage in cen­tral­is­ing these results too; the host mar­ket could set up an aggre­ga­tor device (or devices), col­lat­ing all the trans­mit­ted URLs and dis­play­ing the results on their web­site. This would inform peo­ple at home who was present that day, giv­ing them infor­ma­tion they need to plan their visit.

These ideas only cov­er URL dis­cov­ery, but open up many pos­si­bil­i­ties for fur­ther inter­ac­tion.  There are many more ideas already mak­ing their way into the Phys­i­cal Web Cook­book, and I plan to return to this sub­ject in the future. I should reit­er­ate that these are just pre­lim­i­nary ideas based on my lim­it­ed expo­sure to the Phys­i­cal Web con­cept, and what I real­ly look for­ward to is col­lab­o­rat­ing with a broad­er group to kick the tyres and explore new ideas. To that end, feel free to drop me a line in the com­ments if you want to talk.

To try out the Phys­i­cal Web for your­self you’ll need some bea­cons and a smart­phone. I rec­om­mend this Bea­con Dev Kit from Radius Net­works for the for­mer, and for the lat­ter you can install the app for Android, or set up Chrome on iOS. The Phys­i­cal Web uses the Eddy­s­tone pro­to­col, on which I pre­vi­ous­ly wrote a brief­ing note.

4 comments on
“Exploring URL discovery with the Physical Web”

  1. […] Gasston notes that the spe­cif­ic venue’s mobile app might be a dead use case going […]

  2. Nice arti­cle. But isn’t Chrome an app that one needs to install on iOS. I am actu­al­ly sur­prised why Google did­n’t pro­vide the same plu­g­in with­in Chrome brows­er for Android.

  3. You’re right, and I believe that it will come native­ly to Android at some point in the (near) future, either through Chrome or as part of the OS.

  4. Thank you for anoth­er great post on the Phys­i­cal Web. I feel a bit like I have just tak­en the red pill.

    “I should reit­er­ate that these are just pre­lim­i­nary ideas based on my lim­it­ed expo­sure to the Phys­i­cal Web con­cept, and what I real­ly look for­ward to is col­lab­o­rat­ing with a broad­er group to kick the tyres and explore new ideas.”

    I would love to talk and hope­ful­ly do some exper­i­ments with the Web Blue­tooth API. I am on the hardware/firmware side of things but used to do front-end back in the days when Flash was the best thing ever.