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Meet the off-the-grid chatroom that fits in your pocket

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Building a local network, one necklace at a time

What if instead of connecting to the phone company, we connected directly to each other’s phones? Called "mesh networking," the idea has been kicked around for years in hacker circles, but it got a major boost with iOS 7. Thanks to the new "Multipeer Connectivity Framework," iPhones were able to connect to each other directly over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, a minor software update with potentially major consequences.

Firechat was one of the first apps to seize on the new feature, building a mesh-enabled chat app that drew a surprisingly large user base. The app recently reached 5 million users, popping up at music festivals and protests around the world. For protests, it was a way to communicate without routing through potentially hostile carriers, holding out even in the face of an internet blackout. For everyone else, it was just a fun way to jump off the grid.

What if instead of connecting to the phone company, we connected directly to each other’s phones?

But as the system has grown, it's run up against a serious range problem. The iPhone has a lot less Wi-Fi strength you'd get from a router, and can't reach nearly as far. Android phones are still stuck with Bluetooth for multipeer connections, which is even more limited. Firechat has found the most success in dense crowds — particularly music festivals — but most of the users end up reverting to standard networks as soon as the crowd breaks up. If mesh messaging is ever going to be more than a software flash mob, it's going to need a way to reach farther. But how?

Now, we're getting a look at Firechat's answer. The company is developing a new hardware widget called Greenstone, designed to sit between phones, fill holes in the network, and go places that phones can't go. When Firechat founder Micha Benoliel first showed me the prototype, he was wearing one around his neck, an easy midpoint between the phone in his pocket and my phone, which I'd left on the other side of the table. The device also bridges over time, storing up to a thousand messages at once. If you need to send a message to a chat room that's out of range, the Greenstone will store it locally until it can be delivered.

Designed to sit between phones and fill holes in the network

That failsafe is important because the underlying network is so choppy. Greenstone is built entirely on Bluetooth, which has limited range and relies heavily on line of sight. If the device is in a crowd of moving people (like a concert), the device will be constantly hopping between connections, moving in and out of dead zones. You can wake the Greenstone up by shaking it (you’ll see a few lights go off), which will trigger a search for other Greenstones in the area. You'd never want to stream video over this kind of network, but for something asynchronous and relatively low-bandwidth like a chatroom, it could work just fine.

This kind of impromptu network is such a new idea that there isn't really a word for what Greenstone is. ("Hub" doesn't quite capture it, since the whole point of mesh is to avoid hubs.) It's also still a prototype, and a long way from being ready for prime time. Triggering the shake-to-activate feature is still a little tricky, and connecting is a lot harder than it should be — but those are exactly the kind of kinks that get ironed out as a product moves to market.

You won’t be able to buy a Greenstone any time soon, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see one in the wild. Benoliel has been testing the devices out at events — most recently at SXSW — and he’s toying with the idea of blanketing college campuses with them as a way to promote the Firechat app. It will be a while before Greenstone is ready for store shelves, but in the meantime, it's an interesting prototype that makes the shaggy ideas of mesh networking seem an awful lot more viable.

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