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This article was published on August 16, 2014

How to find your friends at this year’s Burning Man festival

How to find your friends at this year’s Burning Man festival

Ryan Matzner is the Director of Strategy at Fueled, a mobile design and development shop based in NYC and London.

In just over a week, I will make my first pilgrimage to Burning Man. And while I look forward to leaving the mainstream grid to frolic with fellow creative creatures, I’m not so keen on what I understand is a common struggle at Burning Man: losing track of your friends on the playa.

Some people will rely on printed Facebook invites and directions from BurnerMap to find their friends, but these days, workable printers only exist in offices with PCs. And once you’ve left that Walmart in Reno and all other traces of civilization behind, you’re on the playa with no cell coverage and only limited oases of Wi-Fi, meaning you can’t rely on texting to find your mates.

“Meet u by skeletons rowing giant canoes. Will bring steam trike.”

Or at least it did mean that… until now. In iOS 7.1, Apple quietly enabled technology we’ve been talking about for years. It’s called mesh networking, and it’s about to get seriously revolutionary.

There’s a couple of useful devices out there that connecting users offline, including Bluetooth-powered goTenna, but with mesh networking, all you need is your phone. Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework gave developers a platform on which to create mesh networking applications.

It’s the same platform that Apple’s AirDrop uses to share files directly via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, without the need for any intermediary devices.

App developer Open Garden has taken advantage of this new technology by building a proof-of-concept chat app for iOS and it’s about to bring mesh networking to the masses. The team also offers an Android version, which relies on Open Garden’s own mesh networking platform. The app, called FireChat, and others like it, is the tool for finding your friends at Burning Man.


I’ll be using this technology and I hope you do, too because mesh networks grow stronger and more useful as more people join them. When you join the mesh network, you will make my experience better (thanks), and vice versa (you’re welcome).

How it works

In the typical client-server networking apps most of us use, communications are centralized. Even if I’m sitting right next to you on the couch, if I send you a text or file it will probably travel miles away to a server outside Atlanta, Des Moines, or Portland, before returning to our building and eventually making it to your device.

But out on the playa at Burning Man, there is no pervasive, reliable, centralized network to collect and redistribute our messages.

“Time 2 burn Man. Bring matchz.”

Enter the mesh network.

With FireChat, or with other similar mesh apps like The Serval Mesh, installed (do it before you come to Burning Man, because, you know, no internet access, right?), my device connects with all other “meshed” devices within my Bluetooth range (about 70 meters)… and they connect with all the similarly enabled devices within their range. And so on, and so on…

If there’s a high enough density of devices using mesh networks on the playa, my message gets passed along from device to device to device (each serving as a node in the network) until it finds its way to my friend a half mile away over in Camp Contact.

Meanwhile, my device is helping pass along the messages of everyone else in the mesh. There’s no server needed, no weighty infrastructure, just all us individuals and our connected devices, weaving together the community one packet at a time.

Mainstreaming the Man?

burning man

Now, I know some Burning Man traditionalists are going to say this is mainstreaming the Burning Man experience. That searching all afternoon for your friends, leaving old school handwritten notes or messages in a bottle, and trusting to synchronicity is all part of the experience. Traditionalists believe that there’s a principle of immediacy to be upheld, and that it’s important to directly experience what’s right there in front of you.

That’s cool. But when I’m having that mind-blowing experience, I want to send out a call to my friends to come experience it with me… immediately!

And wouldn’t you know, mesh networking is actually quite consistent with the principles of Burning Man. It’s…

Radically Inclusive: Anyone can join, no password needed, no sign-up required, all are welcome.

Communal Effort: We each do our little part, and the tech self-assembles amongst us.

Gifting: You’re giving freely of your device’s connectivity to everyone else in the mesh, simply by being on the playa. You won’t even know to whom you’re giving these gifts or when they’re receiving them. It will simply be happening, in the background, all the time.

It’s also a brilliant example of the power of community. The more we connect, the stronger the mesh will get, and the more useful the network will be for all of us.

Mesh networks are changing the game. So, consider these tips and download some apps before you drop out of civilization and, when you arrive on the playa, join me on the network. We’ll wrap the Man in mesh and light him up with shared connectivity. See you there.