Smartphones of the future to bypass cell towers

The LTE protocol that smartphones use to communicate with cellular towers is to get a new feature, which will allow mobile devices to bypass them altogether. Smartphones will be able to "talk" directly with each other, and to beacons placed in shops, MIT Technology Review has reported.

The wireless technology feature has been named LTE Direct and has a range of up to 500 metres. This is far more than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Depending on whether an update to the LTE standard is approved this year, devices incorporating LTE Direct could be available in 2015.

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Qualcomm is behind the technology, which has been in the making for around seven years. Facebook and Yahoo are also experimenting with it, with Qualcomm's guidance, it emerged at the mobile chip maker's Uplinq conference in San Francisco this month.

LTE Direct could be used to discover nearby people, products and other information - all uses that researchers are looking into. It's easy to imagine the potential for targeted advertising.

The technology's power consumption is low, despite its long range, so it would pose no issue as an "always-on" type of feature.

"You can think of LTE Direct as a sixth sense that is always aware of the environment around you," said Mahesh Makhijani, technical marketing director at Qualcomm, at a session on the technology. "The world around you is full of information, and the phone can use that to predict and to help you in your everyday life."

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Facebook has been testing the technology with its mobile app in mind. "LTE Direct would allow us to create user experiences around serendipitous interactions with a local business or a friend nearby," said Jay Parikh, Facebook's vice president of infrastructure engineering. "You could find out about events or do impromptu meet-ups."

Similarly, Yahoo has been developing several apps that use LTE Direct, one being a kind of digital tour guide. If you've got time to kill, you can tell the app, then it will provide a route past landmarks and points of interest, with information drawn from the web.