Solving Challenges of the physical web

Solving Big Challenges of the Physical Web

This post is a response to a blog post released by Darren Shaw at IBM Emerging Technology.

The Aristotle Labs team has been working with the Physical Web, beacons, and other “Internet of Things”-related technology over the last several months.  The blog posted on IBM.com piqued our interest because we noticed that some of the questions and problems identified in the post were similar to our own experiences.

Interactive Polling

Interactive polling has proven to be very useful for a number of situations in real life. Currently, our team works with several clients who have asked for ways to get real-time results from their users through polls. After finagling with NodeJS and web sockets, we ended up with a web app that is capable of polling and shows users real-time updates of how others are voting.

With the Aristotle app, each beacon points to a different question. In its post, IBM mentioned that their team had attempted this direction but felt there was friction.  We’d be interested to hear what that friction was.  Making each answer a different beacon or programming a beacon to rapidly put out multiple URLs isn’t breaking any rules but could present a problem if there are too many beacons listed for the user.  

If you  have multiple questions and multiple answers, the list of beacons (for now) lists them by proximity, so you don’t get a consistent list in which the first question’s answers are always at the top.  We found that it was easier to make each question a specific URL, allow the user to go to the page, choose an answer, and then see real-time results on their phone as others are voting.  The users really enjoyed having the results of the poll change right before their eyes!

Interactive polling with the physical web

The UI of the Physical Web

Our team believes that within the next few years that Physical Web apps will be obsolete because mobile platforms such as Android and iOS will have support built in, much like FirefoxOS is attempting. But in the meantime, apps are a necessity.

There are some good apps out there, such as Chrome on iOS and the Physical Web app, but we are looking for more.  One of the questions IBM poses is:

“How would someone know that a meeting has a Physical Web interface? If you have to put a sign up saying “Scan for this meeting’s URLs”, it feels like you’re not far from having a QR code again, or just a URL in English.”  

We felt the same way and decided to create our own app called BeaconSage. Currently there is an iOS and Android version of BeaconSage in the app store but the UI is basic. We have submitted a newer version of the iOS BeaconSage app to Apple’s App Store and should have the Android version completed next week.

With BeaconSage we wanted to solve a couple of things:

  • Letting users know when there are beacons around them without being annoying to them
  • Allowing users to “save” beacons to revisit them later.  

I have included screen captures of the updated version of BeaconSage below.

To solve the problem of letting users know that there are beacons around them, we added two lockscreen notifications.

  • The first notification tells the user which beacon is closest to them.  Swiping into the notification takes the user to that particular page within the app.
  • The second notification tells the user how many beacons are around them. Swiping into that notification launches the app to display the list of nearby beacons.  

Two main concerns when developing this feature were battery drain and not annoying the user.  

We wanted to ensure that the app didn’t drain the user’s battery by scanning for beacons so we designed it to scan for beacons only if the device is awake and to update lockscreen notifications only if a new beacon is detected nearby. This approach seems like a step in the right direction, but we are still testing it and would love feedback from the IBM and other teams.

Our second concern was to avoid overwhelming the user with notifications. The point of the technology is on-demand interaction with objects around the user. Because of that, we didn’t want the users’ phones to alert them every time they encountered a new beacon. Our solution was silent notifications — if the user is curious about what’s around them, they can simply look at their lockscreen.

We also allow users to save beacons by clicking the star icon next to the beacon.  Our concern was that some beacon owners may not want their URLs saved, so we created a no-follow meta tag that strips the ability to save the URL. To do this, we created and implemented our own proxy for the app rather than using the built-in Google proxy.This way, the beacon owner can decide on a URL-by-URL basis whether to allow saving or not.  

Beacon push notifications for the physical web

Next Steps

We’re very excited to see that companies such as IBM are interested in beacon technology!  We’d love to discuss how to use the technology in more real-life situations as well.  Over the last several months we’ve been working with clients to utilize beacons in a wide variety of ways. Some of our favorites include:

  • Creating a map for our local zoo to use during events,
  • Displaying featured information at certain exhibits at museums and gardens,
  • Building a fun, interactive Christmas tree
  • Allowing students to schedule meetings with professors when they aren’t in their offices

We also have a few new services that we’ll be releasing in coming months that use beacon technology to drastically enhance the user experience at businesses, workplaces, events, parks, and more.

Our team believes the next step is to mainstream the technology in order to create awareness and place it in people’s everyday lives. To do that, businesses and individuals will need services they can use to get their content out to users. These services need to address issues such as performance and simplicity in order to optimize the user experience.  Our team also knows that the Physical Web can help with interaction among IoT devices by using the Web Bluetooth API that’s currently available in Android and ChromeOS.  We are developing a number of ideas that accomplish these goals, and we look forward to sharing them soon.

We hope that the IBM ET team will continue to examine what’s possible with the Physical Web and beacon technology.  We would enjoy discussing further what our teams are doing to push the technology forward. Here’s to an incredible 2016 for IoT, the Physical Web, and beacons!

About the Author
Matt Shull

Matt Shull

Matt is the Director of Labs at Aristotle and is instrumental in Aristotle’s culture of web performance. Contact him at mshull@aristotleweb.com

Matt Shull
Matt is the Director of Labs at Aristotle and is instrumental in Aristotle’s culture of web performance. Contact him at mshull@aristotleweb.com
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