While the phones we now own do much more these days than they ever could, being a communications devices is still an incredibly important function. For most people, the smartphone is the main — or possible only — portal through which they keep in touch with friends and family. And with devices connected to the internet and global social networks, it’s possible to chat to anyone in the world through the miniature computer in our pocket.
AirTalk from Japanese company OFF Line is a new app that aims to challenge our preconceptions of a social network and in how we communicate by focusing on hyper-local communication and enabling it without an internet connection.
The free AirTalk app makes use of Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi to create an ad-hoc mesh network giving you the capability to communicate with people within a 100m radius without the need for an active internet connection. You can send and receive messages to and from other AirTalk users in the area, share photos, and chat privately with local groups like a mini offline social network of those around you.
Being able to chat without the need for cell coverage or an internet connections strikes me as a great idea. If you’re in an office block with no service or hiking through the wilderness, it could be a useful tool for keeping in contact with those near you. Every year myself and my family travel to a remote part of Scotland where mobile phone coverage is non-existent for the most part and there’s no Wi-Fi where we stay. While it’s nice to switch off for a while, it does make communication difficult during this time and an app like AirTalk could be really useful.
As far as AirTalk's user interface goes, it’s pretty straightforward. If you’ve used Facebook or Twitter (and, let’s face it, who hasn’t?), you’ll be able to understand AirTalk almost immediately. Posting a public status viewable by those in the area, liking and commenting on others’ statuses, and participating in a private chat will all seem familiar. The interface is uncluttered, with no ads in sight, and while there’s little in the way of a tutorial, it’s easy enough to pick up AirTalk.
AirTalk’s marketing material places a lot of emphasis on meeting new people in the local area. There’s a neat feature called ‘Passing’ that records users that cross your path within a 3km distance (which reminds me a lot of the StreetPass feature of the Nintendo 3DS). I can see where this could be useful, but the continued use of GPS is a major drain on battery life and chatting to random strangers isn’t exactly my thing. Plus, being able to chat to local people requires there to be local people to chat to, which brings me to the main problem with AirTalk: user base.
An app like AirTalk is entirely reliant on gaining users. Both the mesh network technology and the sole purpose of chatting with the app are dependent on AirTalk users being in your area. I’ve tested AirTalk in a few major cities and never seen another user (I had to ask my girlfriend to install the app so I could test out the functions). In its native Japan, AirTalk has taken off and proven a useful tool for many, but outside of the Japanese isles it seems adoption has been much slower.
For now, AirTalk represents a great way to chat to friends and family in the same vicinity as you when internet coverage is limited — say on a hiking trip or at a festival. It has some excellent potential for local implementations outside of Japan, but it’s going to need lots of new users for that potential to be realized.
You can check out AirTalk on the App Store where it can be downloaded for free.