Physical Web: How Apps Can Move Atoms & Bend Time

Here is an amazing account of an Uber experience from our friends over at True Ventures. This post was originally post on their blog. Thanks for the great post guys! (disclosure: True Ventures is not an investor in Uber)






For years I’ve been thinking about the physical web in terms of how access to the web can serially and sequentially improve our daily lives. My thinking has revolved around the belief that convenient access to the richness of the web in one instance can, in turn, influence or improve the way a subsequent instance unfolds.

Examples of this include FoursquareFitbit (we’re investors), Yelp, and others. These products all help us improve the moments of our physical lives and bring the power of web reviewsweb-based tracking and analysis or simply the social gratification from connecting our location to our social graph. These experiences seem to tie brief moments of the web to longer real world activities.

You check-in to a restaurant, maybe get a coupon, then put your phone away and enjoy your yogurt. You’re trying to decide on a dinner spot, so you whip out the device, read the reviews, then go about dinner. Or (my favorite) you run for the better part of an hour each day, then at the end of the week, look at your web-based dashboard and see how you’re doing.  These are all incredible product experiences. They harness the richness of the data on the web with the power of your social graph and crowd-sourced opinions.  Sure, those are a lot of buzzwords, but these apps have changed how we think and act.

I experienced something yesterday, however, that makes me realize we’ve only seen the opening act in this incredible drama.  Yesterday I glimpsed the future of the immersive LBS / physical web, and I saw a glimpse of the future in which the physical will be weaved with, transformed by and improved from access to the web.

Yesterday I used Ubercab… .

I rushed out of Pier38 just in time to see my cab pull away without me.  I had 15 minutes to get to the heart of downtown SF from the waterfront. Not a big deal distance-wise, but getting a taxi on the Embarcadero is notoriously difficult. I called back to my office and asked for another cab.  When my colleague Adam overheard this call, he fired up UberCab.   He and the traditional taxi “raced” for the job.  I was meeting an LP, didn’t want to be late, and I would therefore take the first car that arrived.  While I waited, I fired off a note explaining my tardiness to my investor, so sure was I that I couldn’t possibly make it.

Adam ran out of our office, iPhone in hand, and explained that my car was “3 minutes away.”  I looked on his iPhone screen and saw the map, with an icon of me at my location and a moving car heading my way. Literally 3 minutes later, a gleaming black Mercedes 500-Series pulled up.  Total elapsed time since missing my original cab:  well under 5 minutes.  I jumped in, then marveled form the inside of the spotless town car.  New York Times, bottle of water, air conditioner blasting.  This was no cab.

Always one to recognize a good brand, I downloaded the app and became a rider.   I made it to the meeting with time to spare.

Meeting ended. Rush hour in downtown SF. iPhone in hand, one button push, car ordered. Instant text replies my car is 3 minutes away.  iPhone screen shows a map with me geo’d and a car enroute. Below the map shows the high rating of “Mike” my driver.  Phone rings 2 minutes later, and my driver is calling.  “Hi Jon” (he knows my name from the system), “I’m across the street.”  I hop in.  Car spotless.  Mike super professional and friendly.  No cash changes hands (billed to credit card, tip included).  User uber happy.

This experience was seriously incredible.  Not only was I delighted by the instant gratification, professionalism, and transparency of what was going on, but what started as a one button push ended up with me zooming across time and space merely 3 minutes later.

Ubercab is but one example of the power of the emerging instant and constant physical web.  My Partner Om calls this “the internet in your pocket” and has a compelling view of the power of this trend.  At D8 this year, Steve Jobs called this future the “post-PC environment.” It really is the immersive web.

The new class of apps are distinct because their use of the web is simultaneous to the physical activity.  These apps constantly interact with the world throughout the duration of the activity.  Rather than check in and put the phone away, these next gen apps actually direct things in the physical world to happen. They cause or manage human action, and they do so in a streaming metaphor.  As the facts change, the app responds, and sends out messages to impact the physical situation, either moving cars, organizing people, or re-directing remote eyes and ears.  These new apps utilize live feedback loops that entail constant communication between physical world and web.  Many of the apps I have seen this week alone have a mind of their own:  they improve outcomes without a user knowing it.  These sound subtle but are in fact significant distinctions.

At True we are believers in this future and we’re actively investing in the people who are making this future vision come true.  Still, though I’m in the business of meeting with ideas from the future every day, I must confess that it was amazing to live the future through one extraordinary user interaction.

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