Dec 19, 2017 Design + Creative

The Physical Web Sure is Interesting

I was sitting around in the lobby of a hotel at An Event Apart show with Jeremey Keith one time. I had just heard of this idea of “the physical web” and brought it up. Of course, Jeremey was way ahead of me, and literally had a web beacon device in his wallet. Was it little credit card sized thing? I can’t remember exactly (he tells me it was somehow related to Mozilla’s Project Magnet), but there are a number of devices in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Including very small and fairly inexpensive. More importantly, what it did was simple and brilliant:

The beacon broadcast a URL that any device listening can see, and if they wish, visit.

It does this over a protocol called Eddystone (Google’s take) or iBeacon (Apple’s take) which both use BLE (“Bluetooth Low Energy”). Part of the beauty of BLE is these little physical web beacons can last years without recharging.

The way you find these URL’s varies by platform and browser. Chrome on both iOS and Android has ways to see them, even being as first-class citizen as being in the notification screens. I guess you could thing of it like a more useful and less visually crufty QR code.


OK – so Jeremy is near me, I can see whatever URL Jeremy is broadcasting and go there. It’s clever, but it’s more neat than life changing. The company Beaconstac (who, disclaimer, wants you love this because they sell devices and a platform for it) have a pretty nice roundup of things that are a little closer to life-changing. For example:

  1. Walk up to a parking meter and get send directly to the place you can pay.
  2. Walk into a hotel and get sent directly to a check in page, so you can skip the normal face-to-face process of checking in.
  3. Be sitting at a bus stop and be sent right to a site tracking the busses that serve that stop.

Let’s look at a video of that first example, as it’s pretty compelling:

It gets me thinking about things like standing outside a restaurant and getting a link to the hours and menu. Or being at a conference and having the schedule a tap away.
One of the best resources for reading and learning about The Physical Web is Google’s own landing page about it all.

The physical beacons are neat, and like I said, can be affordable. Here’s a
RadBeacon Dot that’s ~$12.00 and speaks both Eddystone and iBeacon. Or they can be more powerful and flexibile like Beaconstac’s beacons that are built to work outside and are paired with a monthly subscription cost for managing them.

You don’t even have to buy anything to play around! Your phone or computer can become a web beacon as well. Uri Shaked wrote up a great article on all this: Exploring the Physical Web (Without Buying Beacons). And offers a fun use case:

To give you a real-life example, when I give a talk, I broadcast a Physical Web beacon with a link to the slides, then ask everyone in the audience to turn their Bluetooth and Location on and for iOS users to add Chrome to their notification center

I hate to rain on the parade right at the end here, because the future is a bit unknown, but apparently in the latest update of Chrome on both Android and iOS, the physical web stuff has been removed. But apparently, that’s just Physical Web notifications and not “Nearby Notifications”, which are more useful anyway.

About the Author Chris is a web designer and developer. He writes about all things web at CSS-Tricks, talks about all things web at conferences around the world and on his podcast ShopTalk, and co-founded the web coding playground CodePen. More by this Author