Burning Man, the annual festival that celebrates art, counterculture, and radical self-reliance, begins Sunday in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
The weeklong event has long drawn a wild crowd that eschews modern society and technology in favour of partying and constructing strange buildings in the middle of the desert.
You won’t find cell service or any other connection to the outside world anywhere in the seven-square-mile camp.
But there’s at least one way to communicate with your fellow burners should an emergency arise.
“The question we try to answer is, ‘what do you do if you really, really need to reach someone?'” Open Garden CMO Christophe Daligault told Business Insider. “We developed it for any situation where you might have unreliable internet access.”
FireChat works through what’s called a “mesh network,” which uses the WiFi or Bluetooth port on your smart phone to connect directly with another phone. As phones connect, they form a local network, or mesh.
“People think that WiFi means internet access, but you can also use that transport layer to connect directly with one another,” Daligault said.
The technology could conceivably be useful for chatting with friends on public transit while underground, during a flight, or while attending other big events with a high density of people and no internet access.
Launched in March 2014, FireChat saw its first big use case at last year’s Burning Man, when thousands of burners encountered mud that made it difficult to access the playa. Daligault said that thousands quickly took to FireChat to communicate, helping their fellow burners to work around the mud.
When the app first launched, you needed to be within 200 feet of another FireChat-enabled phone for the technology to work correctly. But this year, FireChat is partnering with Hub Culture to build a 30-foot pole that will expand the mesh network even further.
Dubbed a “signal totem,” the tower uses wind-generator power and routers, but it doesn’t connect to the internet.
They plan to build the totem near the center of the playa, near the Geek A Transformation Station.
Daligault said that the totem is relatively cheap and easy to build, and he could see the design being replicated elsewhere.
Such an advanced technology is bound to get a reaction from some of the event’s more radical attendees, many of whom use the week at Burning Man as an escape from the noise of the modern world.
“Anything you put in front of burners will have a polarising reaction, and some won’t like it,” Daligault said. “But others might be going with a bunch of friends or family, and we can see them needing a way to send a quick message to say that everyone is OK.”
Since it doesn’t provide internet access, however, burners need to download the FireChat app before they leave for the playa, if they intend to use it to chat. The app is free to download on iOS and Android.