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The Physical Web

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Christos Symeou takes us into the world of the ‘Physical Web’ in his first exclusive guest article with WhichPLM. Christos is the Founder of Blupath Ltd, a company specialising in the amalgamation of the digital and physical worlds.

Just last year, Google introduced yet another new term into our collective technology conscience: the ‘Physical Web’.

In a short introductory video, Scott Jenson, Product Design Manager at Google, is shown approaching a movie poster on the street. “What a great looking movie, when’s the next showing?” he asks the poster. And, of course, the poster says nothing in return.

So our Google friend takes out his phone, and finds that a link has appeared on his home screen that immediately directs him to a page with information about the movie, and the option to immediately book his tickets for that very afternoon. The movie poster does ‘talk’ after all, and is communicating relevant information about itself to the devices in our hands.

It’s an unfortunate reality that technology moves so fast these days, that we’ve got a new buzzword to memorize seemingly every week, but hopefully what is happening here is obvious enough that in this case, understanding the concept won’t be a challenge. In the days before the Physical Web, a physical object is just that – an object that we can physically touch, feel, and interact with. In the world of the ‘Physical Web’ however, every object around us is a living, breathing source of dynamic information about itself, that can be immediately accessible through an everyday smartphone.

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When talking about the Internet of Things, we often refer to physical objects being ‘connected’ to the Web as sources of information: for example, an IoT toothbrush ‘collects’ information about the health of our teeth that it then stores online for us to access through some third application. Think of the Physical Web as part of the IoT ecosystem of concepts and ideas, but this time referring specifically to the ability of objects to ‘talk back’ to us, rather than just gather information from the world around them.

Interactivity on the Physical Web

The Physical Web is all about accessibility and the use of technology to allow objects to communicate as quickly as possible, without the need for specialized hardware or applications. Simply using the native technologies on a common phone, I can access both information as well as functionality: in our Google example, we receive not just information about the movie, but the functionality of being able to book our seat as well.

So, what does an interaction with an object look like? Google introduced the ‘Physical Web’ as a way to promote its own brand of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, that it proposes could be embedded within physical objects as the connectivity link between object and phone; so a user with Bluetooth enabled can just walk up to an object, and automatically see a relevant link appear on their homepage.

But interactivity can be expanded beyond even Google’s narrow (and somewhat expensive) vision. Multiple connectivity technologies could be utilized in different ways, from Bluetooth, NFC, printed codes, or augmented reality, so that an object could become interactive if you touch it with your phone, scan it with your camera, or simply walk near it. The Physical Web after all is more of a capability, and not a single service or app.

This is all very impressive in theory of course but, as professionals, we should be focusing on how we can practically apply these concepts to our businesses. In what areas of our industry would an interactive Physical Web object generate value for us, what kind of information and functionality would we want to expose through it, and how should we track, analyse, and manage interactions?

I would like to propose two different points at either end of the fashion industry supply chain in which Physical Web functionality can be applied.

Consumer portals

Perhaps the most obvious application of a Physical Web solution is for engagement with the final customer.

Imagine if every fashion item sold is turned into a dynamic communication portal between its manufacturer and the customer. Say I’m in the store, and I find a jacket I like. If the jacket is ‘Physical Web enabled’, I could simply touch my phone to it to get immediate information such as where and how it was produced, validation of ecological and sustainable manufacture, a gallery of the rest of the collection, or a comments and feedback form for me to communicate back.

Let’s take this a step further. The jacket need not be just a source of static information, but a living, ever changing communication portal. Marketing, after all, is not just about pushing random messages to our audience, but about personalising communication to our target. So the information the jacket feeds to me, could be completely different to the information it feeds to a different customer.

The same Physical Web product could ‘talk’ in different ways depending on variables such as the geography it is in, the time of day, or the profile of the individual interacting with it. The age of forced single-way push marketing is over. Our goal today is to build personalised, two-way communication portals. And what better path to such a portal than through our final end-product itself?

Supply chain interactions

Now let’s take a few steps back up the supply chain. When we suggest that physical objects become interactive, there is no reason for us to necessarily refer just to finished products. If we look at the relationship between the Mill and Factory, a shipment of materials between the two can itself become an interactive object that is able to ‘give’ information about itself to an individual interacting with it through the use of hardware no more complex that a simple mobile phone.

A shipment arriving at the factory is a trigger of information and processes. We would like to have information about the shipment itself (both basic information such as the number and characteristics of the material we receive, as well as additional information such as adherence to sustainability and ethical standards of production) and then we need to trigger quality control and validation processes when the shipment arrives.

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In a Physical Web world, each packaged box or ‘unit’ of material can itself be ‘tagged’ with information about its own contents once it leaves the Mill, which can be directly tied to a reporting and tracking system on the cloud. When the shipment arrives on the factory, a worker could use a simple, inexpensive mobile device to ‘interrogate’ each shipped unit, and immediately review both the expected contents of the shipment, as well as access the functionality to report discrepancies and identified issues. Similarly, an inspector in either the Mill or Factory could use the shipment as an access portal to report back deviations from expected quality and production standards.

In our case, in each step of the supply chain the physical unit being shipped from point to point becomes an immediate portal to a central, web based reporting and tracking system. At any inspection point, the shipment itself both tells us its expected characteristics, and gives us the means to report actual deviations from these expectations. This information can then become immediately available to any stakeholder, simplifying processes, reducing the need for expensive hardware, and saving time while improving transparency.

Look out for Christos’ next article, due for publication in Q4 2016. 

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.