The Dawn of the Physical Web – by Gavin Wheeldon

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The Web is an incredibly complex thing.  Although it may feel virtual – we talk about things being ‘in the cloud’ – it is in fact scattered on real life servers all over the physical world. There are sites and apps living everywhere from back bedrooms to state-of-the-art data centers. The roads we travel on around the web, range from copper wires to super-fibre, or bounce through the air from satellites to cell towers. They are all physical elements, existing in our very real world.

So the Web is very much a part of our world. Yet, the Web hasn’t really had any major impact on things in our physical world. That is until now; we are about to enter a new revolution. I could have called this blog IoE/IoT which would be very much in fashion, or maybe talked about sensors, iBeacons or BLE or WiFi Aware. The fact is that all of these things are bringing the ‘smarts’ of the web into the world we live in, the one we walk about in day-to-day. The elements are all coming together to create three layers that I think we should call the physical web.

Three Layers of the Physical Web

  1. The hardware, which could be sensors measuring the physical elements in the world, or beacons (and I don’t just mean Bluetooth) that tell us something about the physical space we are in.
  2. Then the transportation method (WiFi, Bluetooth, Cellular or others) that allows communication backwards and forwards.
  3. Last but not least, the intelligence.

We are about to see the dawn of the physical web. A web of devices that can share data forwards and backwards, and act on that data accordingly.  Devices that can do something meaningful in the physical world.

That could be to tell a farmer the cows need milking because the udders are full. It could be to tell a security manager that a valuable asset was left somewhere that it shouldn’t be. Or to alert family members that their aging mother hasn’t switched the kettle on for the coffee she always has before 7AM. The possibilities are endless.

How will WiFi Aware affect things?

Wi-Fi Aware is based on the Wi-Fi Alliance Neighbor Awareness Networking (NAN) Technical Specification. It enables devices to discover nearby information and services, and initiate interactions, without a connection to a wireless access point.   

In my opinion, it is what iBeacon/BLE should or could have been. It’s what WiFi could or should have done sooner. It will alert you and connect you to relevant sites and services based on your location.

We can put WiFi enabled beacons (WiBeacons) anywhere. They may hold a lot of information about a product or exhibit, simpler contextual information, or perhaps just a URL to discover more. Then imagine putting on a Virtual Reality headset, looking around your environment and being able to see a whole new layer to the world that is digital. This is the promise of WiFi Aware but accessed through a smartphone, tablet or laptop (VR coming soon).

Much like the web it will be like opening your search engine to explore a topic, with sites broadcasting what they want you to know and you choosing which you want to consume. In much the same way, your physical environment will publish information about itself, and you can choose what to consume, if anything at all.

And much like the web, your device is anonymous. The MAC address is treated like a cookie on a website. The physical web will know something is there but nothing more until you choose to interact or register with it. Venues or areas become like websites. Pages like zones in a physical space.

When you look at it that way, it’s amazing how well the World Wide Web maps onto the World Wide World. Bring it on.

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