How the Physical Web Works on Chrome for Android

The Internet of Things (IoT) presents a vision of billions of Internet connected devices from air quality sensors to everyday objects like household appliances or vending machines. But how do people interact with these devices in the future where smartphones, smart watches and smart glasses are ubiquitous?

The Physical Web solves the discoverability and accessibility challenge by providing an open standard with an initial implementation by Google, released initially in 2015. It allows any object or even place to broadcast URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) with contextually-relevant information. URLs are a well-known concept as part of the open and well-established web technology stack. The web browser knows how to interpret any URL and how to displays the linked information. No additional mobile apps or vendor ID resolution needed.

Physical Web Enabler

First of all, millions of smart objects are needed that support the Physical Web standard based on Eddystone-URLs, an Eddystone Bluetooth beacon advertising type to broadcast short URLs. Second, apopular mobile web browser that knows how to interpret these URLs and notify nearby users about it proactively.

The big change in Q2 2016  will be the broad availability of Google Chrome (starting with version 49) with Physical Web Support. This is a big milestone for proximity services reaching mass adoption.

In the following step-by-step guide we show you how to test it yourself with Chrome Beta, already today.

Getting Started with the Physical Web

Beacon configuration is best done with the beacon vendor apps. You have to broadcast a short https URL with at most 17 characters, e.g. https://beaconinside.com

Download Chrome Beta from the Play Store

 

Grant Chrome Location Permission

Open the Chrome Beta and access a web page that requires location, e.g. https://maps.google.com. Grant these location permissions by clicking “allow”.

Enable Physical Web

 

Discover Physical Web Beacons

The first time a user comes into contact with a beacon they receive a notification through Chrome asking if they want to enable the Physical Web. If activated, users will see notifications that lists what URLs are nearby.

 

Trouble Shooting

As of February 2016 the Chrome Beta for Android is available for download. It’s not yet fully rolled out and you can check in the privacy settings if it containsa Physical Web entry. If not, you should enable it by entering chrome:flags in the browser bar and activating it.

Make sure your beacon is nearby and set up to act as Eddystone-URL beacon, most are not and need manual configuration.

Limitations of Physical Web

The Physical Web approach is not supported by Apple on Safari for iOS and there haven’t been any announcement to do so. Google Chrome for iOS only provides a PhysicalWeb notification center extension that is difficult to discover at this stage. This leaves a gap on wide support in the mobile ecosystem. The competing iBeacon standard has been published in 2013 by Apple and defines how the smartphone can retrieve a precise location by using Bluetooth beacons, so called iBeacons. This only works for native applications at the moment but provides more flexiblity and reduces the dependecy to the web browser.

The Physical Web experience is controlled by the Chrome browser and the Android operating system, which is good and bad at the same time. The ecosystem has to be carefully build out to drive customer value and not adding another obtrusive notification layer that reduces the user experience.

Outlook

Hundreds of millions ofusers use Chrome for Android everyday. New versions are distributed quickly which accelerates innovation. Now the Physical Web infrastuctures have to be set up in public environments and new services and user experiences have to be defined.

In combination with WebBluetooth support in Chrome it will become even easier to discover, connect and seamlessly interact with nearby objects like vending machines, interactive displays or IoT devices.

Exciting times ahead in the proximity ecosystem. Please share your feedback and Physical Web experiences. Contact Beaconinside for inquiries on how to set up large-scale enterprise beacon networks, supporting Physical Web, Eddystone or iBeacon.