Startups make the Web physical and programming easy

The Web is fantastic when you’re on a website or your mobile phone, but even if we’re not chained to our PC, we’re still stuck staring at a screen. Some startups and DIYers are trying to make it easier for us reach out and touch the Web. They’re bringing the binary interactions of our digital lives into the real world. And this is awesome.

I’m fascinated by projects that enable people to make the Web into a physical reality, such as this Christmas light display for IM status, so when I saw this KickStarter project for reaDIYmate, I was excited. Chris Dixon, the founder of Hunch, tweeted a link to this project, which contains a kit that lets you connect an electronics module to a cardboard-encased mini motor and speaker. You decorate the cardboard however you like, and the end result is an object that takes a specific action when a specific online occurrence happens.

So if you get a DM, for example, your robot sculpture might beep and move forward, or you can set it up to move and make a noise instead of hearing a boring calendar notification. The variations are endless, and I’m kind of excited by the idea of hooking something not just to an online service but also to something broadband-enabled in my home. For example, I wear a Fitbit most days, and it would be fun to connect it easily to some physical object on my desk and have that object take action when my activity levels are too low. I’m imagining a little robot that waves his arms and says, “Danger, Stacey, danger!” which will remind me to get up and move around. But even the first two examples can help keep me in touch with the Web if I am not at my desk or can’t hear my phone.

The Fitbit tracker

Projects such as the reaDIYmate or the Arduino boards that Maker Shed sells are only one element of this trend of embodying computing in the real world. Startup Ifttt — short for IfThisThenThat — is making it easy to combine Web services and elements to broaden or change their function. Linden Tibbets, the CEO of Ifttt, explains that the goal behind his startup was to make the Web services and digital elements in our lives versatile in the way the real, 3-D objects are versatile.

For example a coffee cup in the real world is both a vessel for drinking coffee (or soup or tea or whatever), but it can also be used as a paperweight when a fan is turned on and our papers start blowing around. Digital services don’t have that flexibility, and most people don’t know how to unlock it even if the services could be hacked for another purpose. Ifttt tries to take users one step closer to hacking their Web problems using an easy interface and recipes.

Think about pairing a Craigslist search and Gtalk and activating that combo through Ifttt; when a certain search term pops up on Craigslist, it will pop up on my Gtalk(s goog) as a message. It takes about four to seven steps to make such an action happen, which is far easier than earlier efforts to make the Web a little easier for nonprogrammers to hack. Remember Yahoo Pipes? It was so cool but so hard.

With Ifttt’s building programs, called recipes, such as “Every time you are tagged in a photo on Facebook, it will be sent to Dropbox,” or “When a new book is added to Kindle Top 100 Free eBooks, send me an email,” these actions take just a minute. You sign into services, tell them what to do using the Ifttt interface, and you are done. Here’s one I did this afternoon after seeing a friend complain about saving tweets she wanted to read later.

The reaDIYmate also can be tied into Ifttt commands, which is a nice way to bring the ease of programming the Web to something that makes it easy to program physical objects. This is awesome for the Web today, but it gets exponentially cooler when we bring sensors and the Internet of things into it. So my Fitbit example may not be as far off as I think, if Ifttt can access the API for my device and the device is in relatively constant communications with the Web. Right now this last step is hard, because the wireless used by the Fitbit to communicate is a proprietary version, but with low-power standards hitting the mainstream this may be fixed.

And yes, there are probably far more complex ways to cross the Web–real world divide. But by bringing this to a wider audience and by making it fun, these companies are on the bleeding edge of how we’ll interact with our devices going forward.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.