The thing that goes BEEP…

We’ve lately been sharing our home with a guest — an infuriatingly elusive thing that goes BEEP on cue every twenty minutes.


A piece of paper cut in the shape attached to a wall. A happy face has been drawn on the paper.

Photo credit: Treasure Hill, Taipei, Taiwan by Jirka Matousek.

At first it's presence was novel

At first, its presence was novel. Finding it was a game requiring well placed amounts of cunning and patience. An hour of investigation at best and we’d find the culprit!

Our quest soon became far less of a game than a puzzle. How could we not find something in our own home? How was it managing to throw its voice so successfully, sending us scurrying in vain from room to room? And why did it even still have power (an important clue that as time wore on helped us eliminate many things in our home)?

We eventually grew to hate it can’t it just die already?—while simultaneously being concerned that a mysterious death might haunt us more than its presence had.

And now? Two weeks on (!) we’ve settled into comfortable rhythm. The thing’s presence now seems friendly and expected, almost like pet. Sometimes when we come home it beeps (nothing to do with us of course, it was always going to beep) but we reply:

One of my favourite Google side projects is the Physical Web, an initiative that aims to create an open standard to broadcast URLs using low power protocols such as Bluetooth LE (BLE). Similar to Apple’s iBeacon—but using the web—this technology will enable users to discover, interrogate and (where relevant) interact with objects in the real world.

Unlike many common IOT scenarios, there would be no need for users to download an app to discover or interact with these objects. The data broadcast by the beacon (or object) would be a simple URL that any browser (that supports this protocol) would enable the user to open.

The core superpower of the physical web would be the very same enjoyed by the non-physical version—the ability to discover and trigger on demand interactions, at the point of need, with nothing more than a URL and a browser.

You wouldn’t need to know (or care…until that moment when you chose to care) what a thing is called, who made it, where to download its app, or whether it even has one. You wouldn’t really even need to know there was a thing to interact with. You’d simply query your browser for “things around you” safe in the knowledge that each URL would lead to a carefully chosen set of data, services and interactions that relate to that thing.

My grandfather could probably have told you how many electric motors he owned. There was one in the car, one in the fridge, one in his drill and so on.

My father, when I was a child, might have struggled to list all the motors he owned (how many, exactly, are in a car?) but could have told you how many devices were in the house that had a chip in.

Today, I have no idea how many devices I own with a chip, but I could tell you how many have a network connection. And I doubt my children will know that, in their turn.

The Internet of Things by Benedict Evans

The more familiar objects gain connectivity and computational power, the more our relationship with them will change. For the moment, our interactions with these objects remain quite novel, while also often being quite predictable.

If you’ve just spent a thousand pounds on a smart appliance, or requested the installation of a smart meter for your home, downloading a handful of apps to enhance or replace your old physical interactions with these objects will seem fairly benign. (In fact, operating them from a distance using an app may be the very reason you purchased them).

Supermarket shelves stocked full with various items. All items have 'price cut' labels positioned near them which results in a lot of visual noise.

Photo credit: Tesco Price Cut by Craig Murphy.

But once every supermarket, aisle, shelf, product on the shelf, bus stop outside the store and busker on the street (!) has the potential for ad-hoc discovery, interrogation and interaction, downloading a new app each time will seem cumbersome compared to simply discovering and addressing the spaces, places and things around you using the same app you use every day to discover and address things on the web.

We’re now oddly resigned to the fact that we may never meet the thing that goes BEEP. Whatever it is, obviously still has power enough to beep. It’s therefore likely it would have enough power to broadcast a URL, and with that URL, we would no doubt have access to all the information needed to identify it, maintain it, or if needed replace it. The information is likely already up there…just waiting for the connection to be made.

So many people ask what is the ‘killer app’ for the Physical Web. That’s a bit like asking what is the killer app for the web itself. When any place and object can offer a web page for help, information, configuration, or use, we’ll unlock millions of things, rather than a single killer product.

The Physical Web

Several months later…

While packing up the house to move to Vancouver, we finally found it (a *huge* relief, let me tell you as I wasn’t looking forward to explaining the unknown beep to prospective buyers).

It turned out that the thing, was in fact four separate thermostats…each in a different room, two on one floor, and two on another, that had each run low in power at a slightly different date and time over the space of a week. It retrospect, this totally made sense, and explained why the beeps often sounded as if they were coming from different places (but due to the layout of the apartment, could also easily seem like the echoes of one single thing).

Did I hear the washing machine beep? asks my wife.

I thought it was the dishwasher, I respond, scurrying from kitchen to laundry room and back again, trying to figure out which it was.

Oh, it’s the timer on the microwave oven. I forgot that I had set it to remind me when I had to make that phone call.

The Design of Future Things by Don Norman

The thermostats were a good six years old so one can only hope that, thanks to Moore’s Law and a better awareness of design, we’ve seen the last of this particular scenario. Then again, as we only have so much of a palette of beeps, vibrations, gestures, visual cues and miscellaneous personalised affordances to play with — these problems may go on for a tad longer.