Written for Moveable Online.
There has been lots of talk about The Internet of Things (IOT) and how it will bring in a new paradigm of interconnectivity among our devices, interactions and world.
IOT has become a sort of buzzword in recent years like Web 2.0 before it to encapsulate the trends and developments in the web culminating into novel ways that the internet can be used and leveraged. The thing about buzzwords though, is that they become buzzwords because there’s a precedent for them. Whereas Web 2.0 has been about the rise of social connectivity, collaboration and user-focused and user-made content, The Internet of Things is about extending the web into the real world. It’s a different connectivity, one that blends the gap between online and offline and is helping to disrupt not just how businesses and platforms on web browsers function, but off of them as well.
The Internet of Things refers to the interconnectivity of physical objects to send and receive information to and from the internet. Because of smart functionality and the decreasing cost and increasing processing power of information technology, close to everything you own now has a computer inside of it in the form of microcontrollers/microchips. Your microwave has one, your car has one, in the future it’s not an impossibility for your stapler or toothbrush to have one. And these can be connected to the internet, and to each other, over a network to send and receive information. Imagine receiving a notification to check your brake pads or tire stability from your car, or being able to turn your lights on and off via your smartphone, or your toothbrush detecting your brushing patterns and alerting you of cavity-prone areas.
Countless new concepts, products and crowdfunding campaigns have been launched introducing devices that could effectively connect your home appliances, toys and vehicles to the internet, and, usually with an app on your smartphone or other computing device, interact or control them in some way (dim the lights, turn on your radio, or, the often maligned example, operate your toaster). According to Scott Jensen, a UX designer on the Google Chrome team, this isn’t sustainable in the long run.
As analysts see it, there will be an explosion of these smart devices in the next few years, with Cisco predicting 50 billion devices and objects will be connected to the Internet by 2020. An app for each one of them may not be feasible or practical. Smart home products are one thing, but what happens when this interactivity is made possible and standardized with movie posters, bus stops, billboards, store kiosks, etc. Will the user be expected to go through the hassle of downloading an app for each and every instance? This isn’t a very good user experience, nor may it even be necessary.
Jensen sees the “app for everything” mentality as an example of neural lag, with people being hesitant to see the need for something new because the current model works so well at the moment. The fact is there is only so much room on our smart phones, and the app per device model may just not be scalable when talking about an entire world of interconnected objects.
Google’s Physical Web project, spearheaded by Jensen, is an opensource attempt to fix this by developing a “road” for all of these “truck” devices to drive on. As is explained on the project’s Github page, “people should be able to walk up to any smart device – a vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car – and not have to download an app first. Everything should be just a tap away.”
The Physical Web wants to create a standard that the IOT can build itself upon, their core premise being to “extend the superpower of the web – the URL–to everyday physical objects.” That is, users would ideally walk up to any interconnected physical object and interact with it like links in a web browser: just tap and use. It would act as a “discovery service,” the smart objects broadcasting their relevant URLs and any nearby user device, like a phone or tablet, and users being able to find and use these URLs to access anything from more information about the object, to a multimedia, to a web application that controls the object, etc., all through URLs connecting to the web. This eliminates the need for individual app downloads as it uses the internet itself for object interaction. Described use cases include car rental systems, retail shopping, app-less payments for parking meters, etc.
Apple’s iBeacon is another such proximity system, albeit closed-source and proprietary, that works the same way. Both systems currently use widely supported Bluetooth in their communications, with The Physical Web using it to broadcast a smart object’s URL to user devices. The difference between The Physical Web project and the iBeacon, is that, while spearheaded b y Google, the project isn’t meant to be only applicable for Google products. The end goal is to create an open standard that everyone can build upon, similar to the first building blocks and protocols of the internet.
Ironically, the project’s first instance of user interaction comes in the form of an Android and iOS app, however, anyone is welcome to port it to other platforms, and the entire thing is up on Github for developers to peruse or contribute to.