Cutting and gluing together an Envelope that was to encase her Pixel 3A, La was filled with hope. Being a phone reviewer has made her adept at using phones yet the experiment she was embarking on was going to be the opposite of her normal day job. 

It’s intriguing to note the types of devices that companies come up with, in the hopes consumers want to avoid their phones. It’s not a wholly negative thing, who doesn’t strive to reduce their time on the phone? There is a fair amount of privilege attached to using such phone-avoiding devices, though. Customers who are “overwhelmed” by their devices are the ones who are going to be able to step away from them, and also have enough money to buy a fancy looking lockbox or have resources to get a second phone that’s purposely simple. 

The concept

The program Experiments with Google is a way for the tech giant to collaborate with outside companies and developers, and one innovation that has come out of the program is Envelope. It’s a low-tech project that puts a physical barrier between user and phone, with the aim to decrease usage. There’s an app, because there always is, but other than that all you need is some scissors, glue, and a paper print out. The Envelope has been created by Special Projects, a London-based design studio, and they want to challenge users of their design to glue away their phones in a paper casket and experience a technology-free life.

What basically happens is that your phone is dumbed down to the basics that you need a phone for – making and receiving calls, and telling time. At the moment, the Envelope only works on the Pixel 3A, and there will be a barrier of paper between the user and their messaging, internet, streaming services, Maps, camera, Insta, Facebook; everything you’ve learned to love your phone for will be gone. 

In her experiment with the new system, La had planned a 24 hour sabbatical from phone use, but the idea didn’t go quite as planned. 

The practicalities

The Envelope uses its app to cover up the standard Pixel phone call app with a plain and stark app that is simple in black and white. Once you go through the startup guide on the phone, you’ve got a 10-second window to your Pixel 3A into the cut-and-glued Envelope. 

Once you’ve locked away your phone in A4, all you can see is the standard numerical keypad, a dial button, and an option to see the clock. When dialing out, the call button switches to green and goes red when the call connects. For the time, the keypad will highlight the numbers of the time in sequence whilst playing a little, four-note ditty. It’s quite a mesmerizing thing to watch when you no longer have YouTube. 

With most communication being done through chat apps, a workday on a computer will feel surprisingly normal – not much chance to miss anything when you can just open up Messenger in your browser. It’s easy to convince yourself that not using a phone all evening would be easy; no need to take photos whilst cooking, not needing to Tweet whilst bingeing on Netflix, just leave the phone in the bedroom and function like normal. The before bed Insta check could be tough, but surely manageable?

During her experiment, La had an impromptu dinner invitation that entailed needing driving directions. Social media addiction wasn’t the downfall of her phone-free trial, but rather the simple need to get from A to B. It’s not the safest idea to have handwritten directions to follow in the dark, so at 7.30pm her experiment seemed doomed.

Angela Lang/CNET

The extension

Envelope isn’t there to stop you using your phone completely, it’s more about the mindless, endless scrolling that we all engage in. Seeing this, La decided to not break the seal to get her directions but to default to a second handset to get her directions. The challenge was still on, even with a concession to the need for technology. 

Using your Pixel whilst it’s in the Envelope can be a challenge, with some muffling of the call quality, and you might want to be careful of facial oil or makeup getting on to the paper. It’s best to try and avoid the rain if you don’t want it to disintegrate, and checking the time could get rather addictive.  

La’s experiment was drawn to a close after she had three more reasons to use her secondary device. There was the need for a wakeup alarm, getting hold of a confirmation code for movie tickets from an email, and checking out the time of the next bus on a transit app to save her waiting alone out in the cold and darl for too long.

After three, or four depending on how you see it, strikes, La busted her phone out of the Envelope. It wasn’t a peaceful break from technology and a sense of zen that accompanies the unpacking, but a little bit of stress and a paring knife that released her Pixel 3A.

The facts

Over the last few years, there has been a fair amount of focus from studies telling us that too much phone use isn’t great. Sleep patterns get messy, you can unconsciously overeat, and you might even go blind quicker. There’s also the negative impact on your mental health from too much social media.

Noting this trend, the phone manufacturers are adding software that shows you exactly how much time you spend on your device and lets you limit how much you use certain apps. Screen Time is Apple’s offering, Digital Wellbeing is the Google version, and Zen Mode is what OnePlus has come up with. There are also third-party apps and launchers like Siempo, Flipd, and Space that can help you along with your digital detox. 

The Envelope isn’t completely novel and groundbreaking. For example, Yondr started in 2014 and works with concert venues and schools to keep phones secured and safe in pouches. You can even buy “anti-smartphones” that strip away a load of features, like Punkt, Light, and Palm, all of which have been around for a while and retail at around $350. 

The market

The draw of the envelope is the simplicity. It is a physical barrier and it’s also free. When you think about it, it’s not really a product as such – it’s a great idea for a Pixel 3A that Google got sent and decided to run with.

The co-founder of Special Products, Adrian Westaway told CNET by email, “I wish we were able to do it for every single phone! We chose to make the code open-source and free to modify so that the community could hopefully edit and evolve it, and make it more available to other phone users.” 

The Punkt was launched three years ago, with a minimalist MP01 handset, with its marketing tag being “Offline as the new luxury”. The founder and CEO Peter Neby told CNET in 2017 that the target market was “architects, lawyers, bankers, and Silicon Valley people”.

Most people don’t fall into this category though. It’s interesting to note that the last time La needed to use her backup phone during her experiment was due to personal safety concerns. It can be rather indulgent to go “off-grid” since many people can’t just disconnect due to their work, their education, or for their own welfare. Standing at a bus stop, alone, late at night as a woman is a vulnerable enough situation, there shouldn’t be guilt attached to using a phone to stay safe. 

The future

Although currently only for the Pixel 3A, it’s available to expand across other devices and can be found on GitHub. It’s a worthwhile experience, even if only for a few hours.  

It might be a first-world problem still, but it isn’t necessarily a wrong or negative thing to want to be more mindful of your phone use and break away from it sometimes. It can be interesting to understand how reliant you are on a phone, even when you’re aware of unnecessary screentime. It’s surprising how much safer we can feel when our smartphone is in our hand giving us information. 

Being able to go back to “reality” shouldn’t be a privilege for the few. The Envelope doesn’t go deep enough to solve issues of different abilities and gender, but when you only need paper, glue, and scissors, you can’t ask too much of it.