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Crowded Coachella festival may be ideal test for FireChat app

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival regularly draws a throng of 90,000 for each of its weekends — making it a Super Bowl of sorts for tweets, Instagrams and videos.

As a result of all the cellular traffic, attendees often find it nearly impossible to get a steady, reliable smartphone connection.

That’s why Coachella — which kicks off its first weekend of festivities on Friday — may be the perfect testing ground for a new app called FireChat.

Created by San Francisco startup Open Garden, FireChat allows Coachella attendees to talk to one another without having cellular service or Internet connection. This is possible thanks to FireChat’s ability to create an off-the-grid connection among nearby mobile devices.

The app creates a "mesh network" in which one phone latches to another, that then latches to other devices nearby, and so on, using the phones' Bluetooth and wireless technologies. 

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There are two ways to use the app.

In the “Everyone” mode, each user is thrown into a virtual room where they can see what everyone who is in the app is saying, much like a chatroom from the days of AOL Instant Messenger.

The other mode — the one users at Coachella will want to access — is called “Nearby.” This part of FireChat connects users who are in close proximity to one another through the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities of their devices.

So at Coachella, for example, one user could reach his friend on the other side of the festival if they both log into the “Nearby” portion of FireChat. If there are enough users between them who are also using FireChat, the two friends may be able to connect and coordinate a rendezvous.

FireChat launched for Apple iOS devices last month and for Android devices last week.

FireChat’s developers envision the app one day being used at sporting events, conferences, on airplanes and in parts of the world where Internet and cellular connectivity are not reliable.

“This is what the app was designed for,” Open Garden’s Christophe Daligault told The Times. “Places where you have a lot of people and connectivity sucks.”

Daligault said Coachella is the prime event to test FireChat’s “Nearby” feature at a mass scale.

“At a place like Coachella, the density will be such that it will actually be the perfect event to see how well the technology works,” he said.

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But FireChat is still a work in progress. Android users will not be able to connect to Apple users, Daligault said, noting incompatibilities between the two operating systems.

Users will also need to be careful with what they post in the “Nearby” chatroom. Anyone else who is in the room will be able to see it. The mesh network can’t be used to hold private conversations.

And users can only see what is posted after they have logged in. So if one user sends a message, her friend will not see it if she logs into the “Nearby” chatroom after the message has already been sent.

But if the technology does work the way Open Garden hopes it will, Coachella attendees may not have to worry about their cellular connections anymore. Unless they want to post an Instagram picture.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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