Two Paper Airplanes Flying, Flying…

I stumbled on to paperplanes.world by accident — a Facebook friend shared the link saying that it was a “beautiful web experience”. The in-line blurb said that you could connect with people all over the world through paper planes. An intriguing concept, vouched for by a friend, so I decided to take the bait.

My first thoughts on the site — “Wow, my friend was so right, it really is a beautiful interface, and the music is so calming!”. (Though I’m sure some people wouldn’t appreciate the option to get rid of the music if they wanted)

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Then of course, I was curious about what this was for. The concept sounded so simple, yet connecting, somehow, that I wanted to know what it was all about. So, do we send actual physical paper planes to strangers around the world? Sign them and send them off into the void, tracking them like dollar notes? Is this a social experiment like 6 degrees? Or is it like a virtual pen-pal thing? I needed to try it for myself.

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Usually, every time someone comes up with an idea, a service, or a product, they want to talk all about it and themselves, with links to everything, buttons everywhere. What was immediately striking about this (other than the stellar design) was that there was no such information overload.

In fact, on Paper Plans, there was just a small call to action on the bottom right corner to “join on your phone”. No other information about the creators, no link to ‘About Us’, what this was all about, what it was for. The focus was on their ‘product’, if you could call it that. Maybe ‘experience’ would be a more fitting categorization.

The pièce de résistance, was what appeared to be a real-time visualization of all the paper planes that were being “sent” all over the world. I assumed like any good visualization, the number of planes swooping around my screen were a representation of the actual volume of “planes” moving around the world this exact second. But how could I actually send and receive this planes? What could a person “do” with them?

Never having been one to say naah, brah to a good mystery, I pursued the first “clue” and opened paperplanes.world on my phone.

The mobile version of the site had an almost identical interface, except that I now had the option create my own “plane” and “stamp” it with a few taps, based on my detected geolocation.

Once I “folded” the plane, I could “send” it with a little throw motion of my phone (just the motion, don’t actually throw your phone when you try this!) to simulate the action of letting an actual origami paper plane fly. Or footballs, if you’re into that.

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Once you do that, you have the option to “catch” planes flying past you, with a virtual net. You open them up to see where they’ve been, “stamp” them with your geolocation if you’d like, and send them back on their merry way. I caught a couple planes that had been all over — from New Zealand, Indonesia, Italy, Bucharest, Australia, Scotland, US (Texas, Pennsylvania), Sweden and Canada.

It’s amazing to see all those stamps on a plane you open and then stamp yourself, like — “Wow, someone in Milan, someone in Calgary, opened and stamped this same plane somewhere along the way. We’re all part of the same paper plane now!

You also have the option to track planes you originated. As of writing this, my three little planes have not been caught and stamped by anyone else. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. Oh well, all in good time.

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Trying to find more information about who is behind this and why, I found that this was originally an Android experiment, by Active Theory, a creative digital production studio based out of California.

Paper Planes was first unveiled at Google I/O 2016, ahead of International Peace Day (September 21st). Besides a little news on that, and a Reddit thread, there wasn’t much buzz about this experience, which surprised me.

For the kinds of things that go viral (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen) why wouldn’t this wonderfully humbling experience be receiving more attention? It led me to the realization that all of us are just the same, all by the simple act of sending and receiving paper planes.

Just taking a look at a paper plane you’ve caught, covered with stamps, will make you feel closer to the rest of the world. Not only does this app come with that feeling that we’re all in this together, it’s basically gamification of International Relations and Peace.

Gamification is what made walking so popular with Pokémon Go. So why not in this case? Idealistic though it may be, if usage of this app was made mandatory for everyone — at least, say, five minutes a week — maybe we’d all be a little more zen. But that investigation into what makes something viral, vs. not so viral is best left for another day.

Another interesting thing to note is the site’s domain: the ‘.world’ top level domain gives you the heartwarming impression that this belongs to all of us — not just USA (‘.com’), Canada (‘.ca’), India (‘.in’) or Singapore (‘.sg’).

I haven’t had a chance to test Android app yet, having an iPhone at the moment, but I’d expect the experience to be on the same level, if not better — the same stunning UX and visualization. Possibly with more features.

According to the app’s Google Play page,

“The heart of this concept is to bring people together from all over the world, using the power of the web and Android to create an instant connection.”

Come on, if that doesn’t warm your heart, you’ve got a circuit board knocking around your rib-cage instead.

Apparently, the Google Play release from International Peace Day, is still just a tech demo. V1.05 was released on September 26th, with a few bugs ironed out, but it’ll be interesting to see if they have anything else coming up!