Imagine waiting for a bus and instantly pulling up the route, schedule and arrival time for the next bus, right on your phone. Or, how about finding a lost pup and accessing an interactive dog collar with the owner’s contact information. That’s the promise of Google’s open source Physical Web project, and if it takes off, it could transform millions of everyday items like bus stops and dog collars into “smart” objects full of information and interactions.

Let’s Get Physical!

At a conceptual level, the underlying technology powering the Physical Web is relatively straight forward. Here’s how it works: The Physical Web uses Bluetooth beacons to broadcast web URLs to nearby devices. Any Bluetooth-enabled device in the vicinity can pick up the beacon’s signal and, with the user’s permission, open the URL in a web browser. From there, the user can engage with a contextually relevant website or web application, and even interact with real world objects (more on that in a moment).

How the Physical Web works animation

It’s tempting to think of the Physical Web as a recycled version of QR codes, but that would be a mistake. The Physical Web has some important advantages over its awkward predecessor.

  • Usability. More than anything, it was crappy user-experience that prevented QR codes from taking off. Thankfully, the Physical Web handily vaults over the usability hurdles that made QR codes suck so bad. Unlike QR codes, there are no special readers to download, no cameras to aim, and no codes to scan. In the world of the Physical Web, users can simply “walk up and use anything”.
  • Common Technology. All of the necessary technology to access the Physical Web is already baked into current iOS, Android, Windows, and BlackBerry devices. Since the Physical Web is a Google project, there’s every reason to believe they’ll eventually put the Physical Web front and center in Android devices. Google’s already made important steps in that direction by plugging the physical web into the beta version of Chrome 49 for Android.
  • Timing. According to this post from Pew Research, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults own a smartphone and 46% of them say they couldn’t live without their device. Collectively we use these devices to navigate everything from the physical world to important life events. That wasn’t the case back in 2010, when the first QR code apps became available for smartphones. The Physical Web also happens to coincide with a growing conversation about Internet of Things–the idea that you can make every day devices like toys and coffee makers “smarter” by networking them to the internet and each other.

What Can You do with the Physical Web?

From vending machines to children’s toys, the Physical Web has many potential use cases. From a user’s perspective, the Physical Web enables every day objects to provide information, collect payment, and offer interactions. And on the backend, the Physical Web provides a potential gold mine of data on consumer behavior patterns and user flows. Google’s Physical Web team has put together some great videos showing proof-of-concept.

Restaurant Buzzer

Parking Meter


No doubt many more use cases will surface as this technology catches on, but here are some potential locations and scenarios that seem ripe for the picking:

  • Public transportation
  • Car and bike rentals
  • Sporting events
  • Vending machines
  • Retail
  • Walking tours
  • Location-based check-ins
  • Airports
  • Bars and restaurants (trivia nights, menus, ordering, etc.)
  • Toys and games
  • Real estate
  • Tradeshows

How to See Physical Web on Your Phone

Since the Physical Web is still pretty new, smartphones don’t overtly push the Physical Web without a little set-up. Still, accessing the Physical Web is straight-forward if you have a reasonably current smartphone with the latest version of the Chrome web browser. The biggest catch is there aren’t all that many Physical Web beacons around, at least at the time of this post (spring 2016).

Here’s what you’ll need to access the Physical Web on an Android phone:

  • Android 4.3.2 or higher
  • Bluetooth turned on (found in Settings > Bluetooth)
  • Location turn on (found in Settings > Location)
  • Chrome’s location permission turned on (found in Settings > Apps > Chrome > Permission)

Any time you’re close to a Physical Web beacon, you’ll see a notification with the Physical Web  icon. Tapping the notification will open a list of suggested web pages.

Or, you can wait a bit for Google to release version 49 of Chrome for Android, which will allow users to quickly surface Physical Web beacons.

Apple users will need to work just a bit harder to see the Physical Web. Here’s what you’ll need to access the Physical Web on an iPhone or iPad:

  • iOS 8.0 or higher
  • Bluetooth on (found in Settings > Bluetooth)
  • Google’s Chrome web browser installed on the device

Once Chrome is installed, do the following:

  1. Swipe down from the very top of your screen
  2. Choose Today (located near the top of the screen)
  3. Scroll to the bottom and choose Edit.
  4. From the list of apps, pick Chrome.

If there are Physical Web enabled objects nearby, you’ll see them on the Today screen with the Physical Web icon.