Firechat’s new update makes it easier for Burners to chat their friends in the WiFi-less desert

Chat room application FireChat has a new update out just in time for Burning Man. With its latest version, FireChat users now have set handles that no one else can use. The username will stay the same for one person, unless they create a brand new account under a new email address. Their username will be their own, and no one else will be able to use it.

If you haven’t heard of FireChat, the application allows people who are near each other to message in big group chats even without access to a cell signal. You can’t send private messages, but you can create a public chat room and invite your friends to it, using it to coordinate and communicate when texts and WhatsApps won’t go through. As you might imagine, it could be a crowd favorite at dense festivals like Burning Man and Coachella.

The introduction of official usernames in the app might not sound like a big deal, but it’s a substantial change for the FireChat experience. Previously, users in the public group chats would be able to pick whatever name they wanted, swapping on a whim. They would imitate each other, causing confusion and miscommunication. But with the new update each person will have both a username — which no other user will have — and a display name, which they can change at will. They won’t, however, be able to pose as other people people because the username will appear alongside the display name during chat conversations.

So why didn’t FireChat offer this before? After all, handles are a mainstay of most social applications. Open Garden, FireChat’s parent company, Chief Marketing Officer Christophe Daligault told Gigaom it’s a technological challenge to tie a cell phone to a user ID without access to information in the cloud. He wouldn’t give me much information on how they developed the technology because it’s — a reporter’s favorite term — “proprietary”. “We have a way to distribute that [user ID] knowledge across all the devices so there’s this identity stored on your device that can’t be spoofed,” Daligault said. “There’s only one person who can use this identity across the entire network.”

FireChat taps Android and iOS phones’ bluetooth network to create a daisy chain effect for passing along communication. That’s why it’s able to work — only among a dense crowd and only for relaying messages to other people in that crowd — without an Internet or cell service connection. One cell phone can relay a message up to 200 feet away, and the receiving cell phone can relay it another 200 feet, and so on. In essence, the phones in the crowd are able to form their own Internet network.

An event like Burning Man, in the middle of the desert, will provide the ideal network effect.

Photo credit Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Modified by Open Garden.

Photo credit Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Modified by Open Garden.