Google Physical Web Aims to Make IoT Easier to Use

The idea behind the project is to make interacting with smart devices similar to how people surf the Web.

Google Physical Web

Google is kicking off a project designed to make it easier for people to get around the Internet of things as the number of connected smart devices rapidly increases.

By 2020, the number of connected devices worldwide could hit 26 billion (according to Gartner analysts) to 50 billion (say Cisco Systems officials). Given such massive numbers, it makes no sense that, for people to interact with them, these devices will need their own apps, according to Google officials.

The goal of Google's Physical Web project is to create an open Web specification that will enable people to simply interact with whatever smart device or system they want, according to the project's Web page. The idea behind the project is to enable people to "walk up and use anything," Scott Jensen, a UX designer at Google, said on his Twitter page. People should be able to approach any such device—from a vending machine to a rental car—and be able to use it without having to download an app first, according to Google officials.

With the Physical Web, the idea is to create a "discovery service" where each smart device is given a URL that is broadcast via Bluetooth Low Energy and which can be received by nearby devices. The flexibility of URLs means that the smart device could broadcast a Web page with a paragraph of information, a fully interactive Web page or a link into a native application, according to the project description on the Github site for the Physical Web.

"Once any smart device can have a web address, the entire overhead of an app seems a bit backward," Google officials say on the project's Website. "The Physical Web approach unlocks tiny use cases that would never be practical. … The Physical Web isn't about replacing native apps: it's about enabling interaction when native apps just aren't practical."

As examples, they point to a bus stop that tells people when the next bus will arrive, or parking meters and vending machines that all work the same way so that people can pay quickly and easily. In addition, stores of any size can offer customers an online experience when they walk into the store, and a ZipCar can broadcast a sign-up page.

"These examples are about little bits of data and very simple interactivity," officials say on the site. "Sometimes it's the tiny ideas that can change the world."

With the tens of billions of smart devices and systems expected to come into the world over the next six years, tech vendors and device and system makers are looking for ways to make it easier for users to interact with them, and for these smart devices to communicate with each others. A number of groups—including the AllSeen Alliance, the Open Interconnect Consortium and the Thread Group—are working to create standard frameworks to enable these systems to interoperate. In addition, ARM has announced its mbed IoT Device Platform, which includes a free open-source operating system for IoT devices powered by its Cortex-M systems-on-a-chip (SoCs).

According to the introduction page for the project via the Github site, the Physical Web would act in a similar fashion to how people surf the Web now. The user of a device such as a smartphone or tablet can request a list of what smart systems are close by, a list of URLs is shown, the user picks one and the URL is opened on the screen.

Right now, Google has created a prototype app for the project to give people something to experiment with. Google officials want the app to not feel like an app; instead it works in the background and silently monitors beacons that are around. When the user wants, he or she can call up the list of URLs. It's not meant to be proactive with notifications. Instead, users will only see the URLs when they ask for them.

Eventually, the idea is to have the capability built into the operating system of all smartphones, tablets and other devices with a display.

The goal is for the Physical Web technology to work on every platform. Right now, Google has an open-source app for both Android and Apple's iOS, with the hope that it will be ported to other platforms.