Picture this. You walk into the subway but you don't lose service. Instead, your phone lights up with useful alerts—the train is delayed, a nearby kiosk is running a sale, your friend is standing on the other end of the platform. Meanwhile, there's not a cell tower within 500 yards. This is the world powered by the future of smartphones: LTE Direct.

For the past seven years, Qualcomm has been developing the next generation of wireless technology. As the name implies, LTE Direct is built on top of the LTE protocol that's already helping your smartphone connect to a cell tower and transfer data at high speeds. LTE Direct doesn't just talk to towers, though. Instead, it enables mobile devices to talk directly to each other, and at distances greater than 500 yards no less. This is much, much farther than what Wi-Fi and Bluetooth allow.

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With LTE Direct, however, it's possible to communicate with other phones or with nearby beacons without connecting to a tower. This allows for mesh networking on the fly. This is already possible with apps like FireChat, but that technology depends on the very limited range of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth which is only about 30 feet. Again, LTE Direct can connect to devices that are over a quarter of a mile away.

That's only the beginning, though. LTE Direct is perhaps most powerful when you can imagine how these mesh networks grow and even learn. The technology uses very little energy, too, so smartphones can constantly search for a signal. "You can think of LTE Direct as a sixth sense that is always aware of the environment around you," Qualcomm's Mahesh Makhijani said recently. "The world around you is full of information, and the phone can use that to predict and to help you in your everyday life."

Yahoo and Facebook are already looking for ways to take advantage of this new tech. Facebook says it plans to use LTE Direct "to create user experiences around serendipitous interactions with a local business or a friend nearby." Yahoo, meanwhile, is building apps that harness the power of LTE Direct, including a digital tour guide that will show your around the city in an allotted amount of time. These are similar sorts of features that Apple's iBeacon technology promises, but as Markhijani puts it, LTE Direct is "iBeacon on steroids."

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Of course advertisers are also pumped about the prospect of LTE direct, and one New York agency is already designing a system to delivery ads directly to a million people in Times Square on New Year's Eve. That won't be happening this year, but you can bet it's not far off, for better or worse.

LTE Direct is expected to be included in an LTE radio update later this year which would put LTE Direct devices on the street sometime in late 2015. Of course before we can live in any non-tower-dependent fantasy, there needs to be an army of LTE Direct devices out in the wild. But it seems like it's less a question of "if" than "when." [Tech Review]

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