Creating immersive interactive experiences on the web is easy and difficult at the same time. We’ve had a lot of enquiries about the ability to create web-only experiences – i.e. you don’t have to install an ‘app’ to be able to go on an ECHOES walk. As it turns out, this is an incredibly complex topic. To be honest, you could probably make a gripping mini-series about it, especially if you could dramatise the web itself. Let’s call it “Walking with Hidden Strangers”.

Episode 1 - an expected surprise

Roll back to 2016. Rumours abound around the use of a new style of web experience – progressive web apps. Will they do what we’ve all been waiting for? People talk in dusty bars over pints of stale beer expounding their theories about why it’s going to do away with the need for iOS and android apps. We’ll just go to a website and get the same experience without downloading an app – 

  • “Did you say the same experience?
  • “Yeah, all that cool stuff; your GPS location, the ability to work offline, notifications. You know, the same
  • “But won’t that kill app sales?”
  • “The big companies are behind this”
  • “Are you sure?”

Cut to a crumbling smartphone crushed by the juggernaut of the web. Wait, fast forward… to 2020 

Culture clash

Native apps still dominate our experience, but not all our experience of digital. Museum directors apparently report that they struggle to get people to download an app in a museum. That’s just not what people are there for. They flock to websites –

  • “Fancy going to the museum?”
  • “Yeah, what’s on?”
  • “Let’s check the website”
  • “Don’t they have an app?”
  • “Yeah… but.”

…tap tap tap and we’re in the museum collection, looking at paintings or browsing the interactive exhibits. The barrier to installing a museum app is massive, but browsing the opening times or checking the map on your phone whilst in the museum is definitely fine.

  • “So why don’t they do audio guides on the web?”
  • “Ah, well on the web they can’t get the audio to play in the background, or use beacon triggering, or get GPS position when the phone’s locked”
  • “What! Isn’t that what progressive web apps were supposed to do?”
  • “Well the committee’s out on that one, it got stuck somewhere in negotiations”

Permissive access

So. Various standards have been proposed, but it comes down firstly to permissions. Walking with Hidden Strangers.

  • “I went to this website, right? And it asked me if it could get my location in the background. I thought ‘Fine’ because it wouldn’t let me go in if I didn’t click yes… Anyway, turns out it’s been grabbing and saving my location whilst my phone’s been locked for ages! I don’t know where that data’s gone! Took me ages just to find the website again, and now I’m paranoid some randomers know where I live, where I work, where I go for my jog. Oh Lu, it’s mental… I, I… never thought it would come to this but I’ve… got rid of my phone”

Right. It might not come to that, but those Hidden Strangers are real, and there are a few barriers to adopting a standard like that. Luckily these things are better ring-fenced in the world of native apps, where the big boys have (relatively) fine-grained and tight control over what apps can do what. There’s a whole ‘security’ section in the phone for each app, where you can easily turn off things you don’t like and see what it’s already got permission to do. It’s more difficult to do this with websites because of the noise. Whether you like it or not, when you go to Val’s Very Vegan Cookbook to find a recipe, it’s actually getting ‘resources’ from lots of other places. The thing is, it can also send your data to a lot of places without much in the way of permission. And your location data is a pretty sensitive one, especially when you carry in your pocket a device capable of determining your location to within a few metres.

That doesn’t mean to say websites can’t get your location, lots do. But they can only get it while you’re on the page. Once you switch to another tab, another app, or lock the phone, they’re blocked. That means if you launch a web-based audio guide you’ve got to keep the phone on, the screen awake (and most likely in your hand) while you walk.

The dream

  • “The dream of truly immersive audio experiences on the web is still a dream , then?”
  • “Yup, at least for the moment”

The good news, folks, is that it’s a possibility. Just not right now. The internet is a slow beast when it comes to standards, especially in an age where privacy needs to be foremost. We’re hopeful, we’re watchful, so watch this space.