Apple has reportedly paused work on an innovative project that would have enabled new iPhones to serve as peer-to-peer walkie-talkies for communication, even when they’re outside of cellular tower range. The Information said today that Apple was planning to include the feature in a next-generation Intel modem that was canceled earlier this year, leading to the departure of one of the technology’s leading proponents from Apple.
Conceptually, the feature would work by enabling multiple iPhones to form a multi-user mesh network that could send communications from device to device even if a cellular tower was not nearby to connect them. Relying on 900MHz wireless technology, the feature would work over long distances, enabling hikers and snowboarders in areas without cellular access to connect directly to other people, using those connections to reach larger networks. Assuming that the data could be encrypted appropriately, it would be safe to pass between multiple devices, and especially worthwhile for emergency texting situations where phone towers alone couldn’t reach someone.
According to the report, Rubén Caballero, an Apple leader who was championing the product, left the company earlier this year after the Intel modem project collapsed and Johny Srouji became Apple’s modem development lead. The feature was called Project OGRS (off-grid radio service) within Apple, and Project Shrek at Intel, likely because the service sounds like “ogres.” It would build upon dispatch radio communications technology already used in utility industries to guarantee communication between far-flung oil and gas employees, and work somewhat similarly to a relay-based walkie-talkie feature included in Apple Watches.
For Apple users, the bad news is that the feature appears to be on hold for the time being, thanks in part to Apple’s switch to Qualcomm modems. The good news is that Qualcomm has been working on its own implementation of a similar feature, LTE Direct, that enables peer-to-peer connections between devices separated by 500 meters — roughly one-third mile — though it hasn’t been included yet into shipping devices, and Apple is now working on its own modems that may build upon the concept in the future.
Device-to-device communication is expected to increase in importance during the 5G era, and has been held out as part of the future foundation of 6G networks, where all devices will supposedly be capable of communicating with one another using massively distributed connectivity. Such a feature, which might require huge numbers of devices and consume untold amounts of power, is expected to rely on ever-shrinking wireless chips and order of magnitude-level upticks in the number of consumer devices.