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Google wants to turn urbanites into beta testers of a ‘Physical Web’

The Atlanta skyline. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Google is hard at work attempting to build what it is calling the Physical Web -- a connected network of physical objects accessible through the Web browser. What's striking is that Google's vision is an intensely urban one, suggesting that city dwellers will be at the vanguard of the development of the long-promised Internet of Things.

Scott Jenson, a designer on the project, writes on GitHub, where Google is collecting open-source code around the project: "Our core premise is that you should be able to walk up to any 'smart' physical object (e.g. A vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car) and interact with it without first downloading an app. The user experience of smart objects should be much like links in a web browser: i.e. just tap and use."

But while research firm Gartner has estimated that the Internet of Things will number 26 billion items by 2020, Jenson's examples of networked-connected physical objects are focused on things that the average urbanite experiences daily.

"A bus stop tells you the next bus arrival," Jenson predicts. "Parking meters and vending machines all work the same way, letting you pay quickly and easily. Any store, no matter how small, can offer an online experience when you walk in. A ZipCar broadcasts a signup page, allowing you to immediately drive away."

Why's that? For one thing, it seems, city dwellers simply interface more often with objects they don't innately control. Where suburbanites might drive their own cars to work, their city counterparts are likely to take the bus, the subway, a cab or shared city sidewalks. And the transformative power of the Internet of Things isn't just being able to water your own plants remotely. It's being able to access shared objects through shared interfaces.

"The Physical Web," writes Jenson, "is an effort to extend the core superpower of the web — the URL — to everyday physical objects." In this vision, objects will broadcast out their digital addresses. In the same way that the address in the toolbar of your browser made it trivially easy to connect unrelated Web pages together, Google's vision of the Internet of Things is one where unrelated physical objects are linked. That's the nature of cities already; Google wants to supercharge it.

What Google's approach also suggests is that the Internet of Things is closely tied to the future of what Harvard professors Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith call "The Responsive City," or the push to use things like open government data and networked sensors to deliver a city that is, as Crawford and Goldsmith put it, "more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it has ever been." Google has its eye on that endgame, too.

"At its base," writes Jenson, the Google product designer, "the Physical Web is a discovery service." City dwellers and urban visitors have been discovering cities on their own for generations. Now they'll have a little help.

Correction: This piece originally had the incorrect first name for a co-author of "The Responsive City." It is Stephen Goldsmith, not Robert Goldsmith.