Day one of FireChat's Burning Man chatroom

Day one of FireChat’s Burning Man chatroom

Culture


Cellphones don’t work in the desert. That used to be part of the charm.

But Burning Man, a week-long festival in Black Rock Desert, was never about creating a tech-free city — it was about forming a radically autonomous city. And now it has a chat room too.

firechat

The off-the-grid chat FireChat app, launched in March 2014 by OpenGarden, has been downloaded five million times in six months. In preparation for Burning Man, they’re adding the ability to create a personal profile with your real or playa name (if anyone wants to send me playa name suggestions, I am open to it). And they’re girding themselves for what will be the app’s largest test.

Using a smartphone’s Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, FireChat creates a local phone network, a phenomenon called “mesh networking.”

One device can send and receive chat messages with another 210 feet away, but if there are more devices, it can spread the network far beyond that, bouncing messages out along each smartphone node. You won’t be able to send texts directly to other cellphones, but the app lets you participate in an open, mass, Burning Man chatroom. Users can create little chatrooms, but anyone in range can hop into them.

“It’s an autonomous, completely independent network, but for it to really work beautifully we need a density of people,” said CMO Christophe Daligault.

Although Burning Man’s organizers intend to build an ever-more-sophisticated autonomous city (which includes infrastructure), and although it’s popular among tech titans, some participants miss the days when the festival was a week off from the trappings of modern life.

“It’s tricky with Burning Man. You have a lot of Burners who say the great thing about Burning Man is we’re off the grid, I’m not checking my phone, please don’t ruin it for us,” he said. “We have other people who say, you know, ‘I’m going with my kids.’ Or just, ‘I want to stay connected.'”

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