Thoughts on the Physical Web

We’re increasingly convinced that the physical web is a critical missing piece in the evolution of the web.


A man in a balaclava holds a sign that says Bitcoin believer needs micropayments and includes a QR code

Photo credit: Bitcoin believer by scottks.

Spimes—a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities.

Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things

A world of spimes isn't on us just yet, but as a wise man once said—few things in our present or future are equally distributed (which IMHO remains a good thing).

To this end, Bryan and I have just released a preview to a new presentation about the physical web — an project started by Google that is rapidly weaving its way into a variety of platforms, devices, and touch-points. Like the web, or indeed the internet, the premise of the physical web is pretty simple, and yet could be quite transformative.

A picture frame that broadcasts "I love you". A bulb that says "Change my colour". A TV that broadcasts instructions. A sofa that broadcasts its materials

Photo credit: Living room by Kazuho Okui.

A collection of things that fling small bits of data about themselves in the hope that you might better understand, enjoy, use and then dispose of them.

Our goal in this talk (which we first presented at Responsive Field Day but will expand on for Beyond Tellerrand) is to explore the opportunities and possibilities of this set of technologies, with a specific eye to how they may impact the way we create sites, content and services in the future.

Topics we plan to explore further in the next draft (or future articles) include:

We’re increasingly convinced that the physical web is a critical missing piece in the evolution of the web—moving from the desktop, to our pockets, and now into the physical world. If I can be honest however, it’s sometimes challenging to find use cases that go beyond the (admittedly hugely useful) “flinging of data”. I’m not so sure that’s such a bad thing. Combining contextual discovery with judiciously flung data and a well-conceived just-in-time UI can accomplish quite a bit. There are also only so many things we can interact with in a day before some of these interactions begin to feel gratuitous, possibly unnecessary, or strictly created for the gain of others.

The fact that physical web interactions are entirely opt-in—if you don’t open your browser, or at some point implicitly accept a notification from a brand you care about, you will never know a beacon is there—is a key aspect of this technology that we would do well to retain if we wish to preserve the values that have made the web the open and ubiquitous resource that it is today.

Update: Thanks to everyone who contributed comments, suggestions (or complaints). These were incredibly useful and helped to shape the second draft (and upcoming articles).