I just got back from Google’s flagship developer event, Google I/O. It was three days immersed in the present and near future of what’s possible in technology. Though there were many major headlining technologies like self-driving cars, Google Assistant, Project Tango, Project Ara, and deep learning, I’m going to focus this article on one technology I found to be immediately applicable to commercial real estate (CRE): the Physical Web.
The Physical Web provides a digital existence to real, tangible objects around you. It allows you to walk up to and interact with physical objects in totally new ways. Such generalizations aren’t terribly clear, so let’s consider two simple examples.
First, consider looking for office space downtown. You’re walking down 5th Avenue. You pull out your phone and see that the building in front of you is on the Physical Web. You click on the notification, like that shown in Figure 1, and are taken to the building’s web page on RealMassive, which shows the building’s availabilities in real time for free. There is one space left, and it happens to be the perfect size, with a reasonable asking rate.
Let’s look at another example. You arrive at your office before work hours, so the door is locked. You pull out your phone, knowing the security doors are on the Physical Web. You tap your phone to interact with the doors. It connects and asks you to prove who you are. You use the fingerprint scanner on the back of your phone and the doors unlock.
These are actions that the Physical Web are starting to afford us. Let’s take a quick look at how it all works, then consider a few more possibilities.
How It Works
There are three components that make the Physical Web work.
First, there is the physical object itself. It could be anything—a building, a set of doors, a parking meter, a movie poster, or even a light. It doesn’t need to be on the internet, but it could be. All this object needs to do is let us know that it’s on the Physical Web. It does this by transmitting a very low power signal, which spans a couple feet beyond the object itself. You have to be nearby the object to interact with it. Some objects can create signals up to and beyond 40ft for larger areas, like reception. The object emits its signal through a Bluetooth Low Energy beacon. This beacon can be stuck to the wall next to the object, hidden behind it, or even embedded inside some other technology nearby, like a wireless access point. The point is, the beacon emits a small signal to let you know that the object is on the Physical Web.
Second, your phone or other mobile device needs to be setup and ready to detect beacons. Since the beacons currently use the BLE Eddystone format, your smartphone should work just fine. Wait—what about being spammed by millions of beacons while walking down 5th Avenue? Don’t worry. You start the interaction, not the beacons. The process begins when you pull out your mobile device to look at the list of objects nearby on the Physical Web. If you’re not using your phone, the beacons can’t vibrate, ring, or otherwise alert you.
Third, the physical object needs a web page. The beacon in step 1 transmits the URL of a webpage, nothing more. Once you discover this beacon on your device and tap to interact, you’re taken to that beacon’s web page. This interaction becomes even more powerful when the device you’re interacting with on the Physical Web is also connected to the internet or has web bluetooth enabled.
Let’s put it all together in another example. You approach a parking meter. Hoping it’s on the Physical Web, you pull out your phone and check. Your phone detects the beacon and, once you tap to interact with the meter, you’re taken to the city’s web page, allowing you to pay the meter. With a couple of taps, you add an hour’s time to the meter and pay. The web page sends a signal to the meter and you’re good for an hour.
With a little work, one can imagine a whole host of potential scenarios for CRE:
- Place a beacon in each of your building’s lobbies that provides current listing information for that building, or a virtual kiosk showing occupants’ office locations
- Track customers’ activities around retail outlets
- Offer coupons and special offers that you can only get by being in a given location
- Smart product placement outside of physical retail stores, like ads at bus stops
- Easily check in for appointments
- Digitally wait in line
- Track product movement throughout industrial warehouses
- Interact with inventory in warehouses
- Or even get a robot to give you candy.
If you’re interested, read more about the Physical Web.
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