Feature

Digital Viewpoint: The invisible web

Mobile technology is advancing so rapidly that soon the internet will infiltrate every aspect of how we communicate in the real - and virtual - world, and disappear from our consciousness.

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run, according to Roy Amara, a past president of the Institute for the Future.

(Or, to put it another way, you ain't seen nothing yet.)

The true extent of the social and cultural impact of technology is only felt when it becomes invisible.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger provides us with the best-known example of invisible technology: a blind person's cane. The cane becomes more than a tool that the blind person uses to navigate, it becomes an extension of the arm. It goes from being part of the external environment and becomes part of you, a part of you that has specific influences on your experience of the world.

Writing may be considered another invisible technology, allowing us to record and share ideas across time and space. It, too, changes how we perceive the world: the media theorist Marshall McLuhan argues that writing changes the sensual configuration of communication from a primarily oral and aural experience to a visual one.

The true effect of the printing press, destroying the hegemony of the church in Europe, only became evident a century later, when the technology was ubiquitous, allowing literacy to become normative.

Although we are living in technologically accelerated times, the social impact of the web will only become evident when it is pervasive, ubiquitous and invisible - a tool used so intuitively by the generation that grows up once this happens that it is no longer a tool, but an extension of yourself. Once it has vanished, we will know that the web has become central to how we live in and experience the world.

The beginning of the internet's disappearance is the convergence of technologies that will integrate data into the real world - an idea known as augmented reality. Currently, we think of the web as something that sits inside the browser on a computer. Hence we refer to the "mobile" internet, because the modifier is needed. Relatively soon, that will no longer be the case.

Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has been announcing the "mobile revolution" all year, saying repeatedly that Google was expecting to generate more revenue from the "mobile" web than it does currently from wired connections within a few years. He was referring to the iPhone and the Android mobile platform, that make searching from your phone easy.

This is only a hint of what is to come. Consider an augmented reality, with data integrated into every element of your existence.

GPS is the first component. Geo-location on your mobile phone enables "geotility" - making things useful for where you are. The basic element of this has been mapped out: you never get lost. Now add in temporal awareness, and you have what the futurologist and author Bruce Sterling calls a SPIME - a device that knows where it is in space and time.

The mobile is the first device that allows you to access augmented reality. As a SPIME, it can begin to offer you services and, of course, advertising. Offers based on what time it is and where you are, direct to your phone.

Beyond location-based advertising, new insights and ideas can be built on SPIMES. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "reality-mining" project uses the technology to study "computational epidemiology" and model the spread of disease through populations, or how civil unrest in Kenya changes movement and interpersonal communication. How the human swarm moves suddenly becomes visible.

Geolocation changes the nature of privacy. As Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired, says, the cost of true personalisation is absolute transparency, at least to the machine. Services such as Yahoo!'s FireEagle allow you to set permissions, so you control who else is accessing your location.

Now take your SPIME and make it socially aware so it has access to your social network. Loopt, the social mapping service, turns your phone into a "social compass", alerting you when your friends are nearby. MIT's "serendipity" experiment takes it a stage further, connecting location-aware devices to user profiles that involve everything, from your Amazon profile to where you hang out, to an inference engine that guesses who your friends are, using the social graph in the same way that Facebook does to suggest people you may know. The result is a real-time real-world network that connects like-minded people in close proximity.

Proximity is important. For now, if we want to use our phones to interact with the world, we have to snap a QR code or text a number. But that is unnecessary once all phones know where they are and what they are near, using another component technology - radio frequency identification (RFID).

Nokia and O2 have already run a pilot project on London Underground that uses near field communication chips in phones as contactless Oyster cards. The same technology will allow your handset to interact with the world in manifold ways, such as pulling data from a poster. Google, Nokia and Visa recently unveiled plans for a contactless payment system for Android.

RFID can connect everything, every product, place and piece of clothing, to the network. Everything becomes a SPIME and objects begin to host the capacity for intelligence.

Take GPS and RFID, and add in accelerometers, such as those in the iPhone and Wii controller, which tell the device which way up it is and which way it is moving. Now things are getting interesting. You have a device that can point and click on the real world. The Japanese company GeoVector already has a platform that allows you to point and click on 700,000 buildings, shops and landmarks in Japan to instantly retrieve information about that place.

Now, add in your phone camera and screen. You just point it at the building in question and it overlays the geotagged data onto the image on- screen, blending data with the world itself. Nokia is already building mobile-augmented reality applications that do this and can recognise people as well.

Mobile broadband means you are always connected to the web - the idea of "being online" or "offline" no longer makes sense. Everything will be connected at all times to the one machine, with the web as its operating system.

Now imagine all that and take away the phone. The screen is sitting inside a pair of glasses, or projected on to your retina by contact lenses, or being delivered directly into your occipital lobe, stimulating your brain to see what the machine sees. Instead of a handset, you control the data stream by gesticulation; the accelerometers in your hand know exactly what you want.

Suddenly, the web is invisible because it is everywhere. No longer a tool, it is an extension of you, just like the blind person's cane: it is functionally part of how you experience the world. Then, and only then, will we discover the true impact of the web.