We may have spent the past few years fretting about the time we spend online versus offline, but here’s the good news: 2013 is going to be the year we relax a little. We will get over the novelty of social-sharing online and just accept it, distracted instead by the utility and magic revealed when "real" and "virtual" worlds start to merge. The physical world becomes properly programmable. The physical web comes into its own.
If there has been a meta-creative goal of technology over the past decade or so, I would wager it is to create online experiences that inch closer to feeling viscerally real; to strive for a "real-world standard", if you will.
Cast your mind back to Second Life ten years ago, all the way through to the interactive 3D graphics made possible by WebGL today and the steady advances in virtual-reality gaming now being applied to healthcare. Within multiple industries fuelled by technology, there’s a fascination with mirror worlds and visceral experiences. And disappointment when they don’t quite measure up to the hype (goodbye, then, Second Life).
But what if we flip things for a moment: think about putting the web into the physical world, rather than trying to mimic the physical world online.
There are a collection of reasons why the physical web’s time has come. Forget QR codes. Witness the leap augmented reality made with the announcement of Google’s heads-up glasses, which justifiably caused a stir in 2012. Then add the emergence of the Internet of Things and Quantified Self into mainstream tech culture. If you’re less familiar with the last two, they are two sides of the same digital coin in this context.
Quantified Self looks at the physical web through a human lens. An expression coined by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf six years ago, it’s about self-tracking your performance – often via wearable, digital tool that collect and report how well you’re doing – with applications for health and fitness, finance, productivity, education, mobility and more.
The Internet of Things, coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, looks at the physical web through the lens of objects. It refers to connected sensors embedded in objects, making them machine-readable and artificially intelligent – with big consequences for everything from stock-taking to security, architecture to art. A year ago, Cisco calculated there were already more devices connected to the internet than there are people on the planet.
And we’re seeing brands back up the promise of both, with self-tracking services such as Fitbit and Nike’s FuelBand breaking into the mainstream, while Internet of Things services are emerging, such as Lockitron, which remotely locks or opens your front door (never worry about losing your keys again) and Growerbot, which uses sensors to monitor moisture, light and temperature in your garden and water when needed.
Solid broadband and smartphone penetration, super-fast mobile broadband, an expanding free Wi-Fi network in the UK and the emergence of services such as the ones mentioned are together creating perfect conditions for the emergence of what might be called a "real world web".
Even search is transforming, as Google puts it, to "things, not strings". Its Knowledge Graph, introduced in May last year, aims "to understand real-world entities and their relationships to one another" and already contains close to 600 million objects. Search now understands that the Taj Mahal is a building, but also a music band, a casino and a bunch of restaurants. Then there are Apple’s Siri and Google Now for Android – essentially predictive, personalised search on the move, although that barely does them justice.
THE RISE OF THE NETWORKED BRAND
What about brands in this context? All this powering-up in technological terms and blurring between real and virtual worlds simply underline why brands in any category need to grasp the value of operating in a network.
A few things worth considering now:
1. If your physical product had a digital layer, what would it be?
2. What physical, live or exclusive experience can you give to your network to share?
3. Are you thinking about "views" or subscribers? If you’re serious about content marketing to connected users, it’s the latter.
4. As users flip between devices on the fly, they will expect a seamless experience. Are you designing responsively?
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Beyond 2012, we will need common protocols enabled by an open web for this to work at scale. Businesses to watch in the meantime: SmartThings, Placeme (a "persistent ambient sensing" mobile app that collects all the sensory data imaginable) and Esri (formerly Geoloqi, a next-generation location app). In short, our phones will pick up so much real-world, ambient data, we won’t need to look further. To paraphrase Esri’s Amber Case: "Think what SMS did for telephones."
Welcome to the real world web.
Mel Exon is a co-founder of BBH Labs