Earlier this year, Apple revealed a major focus for its platforms, the promise to help us stay connected in brand new ways. It’s a promise that resonated following a tough year in which we relied on our devices more than ever to simply say hello to family and friends.
SharePlay, which debuted earlier this week in iOS, iPadOS and tvOS 15.1 fulfils that promise by introducing a number of ways to extend those moments of connection through interactive shared experiences from within a FaceTime call. A technical feat that allows participants within a call to share their screen, collaborate, listen to music, watch movies and TV shows or break a sweat together with a workout across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Mac¹, in perfect synchronisation.
Many will feel that SharePlay is a feature that arrived a year too late, given its introduction during a global pandemic, but if you look closer it’s a feature that has the potential to leave a long-lasting impact beyond the next possible lockdown. Users with loved ones many miles away that rely on FaceTime to stay connected have wished for this kind of feature for years, and now that moment has arrived.
Furthermore, SharePlay also has a strong focus on inclusion, removing barriers often associated with language and disability. Now non-native speakers and those with accessibility needs can connect through TV and movies in real time by using FaceTime on their personal devices connected to headphones to select soundtrack preferences whilst sharing the experience with family and friends on the big screen — bandwidth limitations aside.
Starting a shared experience is fairly intuitive. When you enter a SharePlay compatible service or app whilst active in a FaceTime call, a lightweight toast-style notification will appear at the top of your screen prompting you to choose content to use SharePlay or informing you that content will play automatically. Once chosen, participants within the call are prompted to join by confirming the synchronous playback of the chosen activity on their screens and from that point onwards each participant has the ability to control playback, change the activity, leave the session or end the session for everyone.
During my testing I was particularly impressed by the adeptness of SharePlay with regard to specific activities. For example, in Apple Music participants have the ability to add items to the Music app’s queue and edit playlists whilst volume levels would automatically lower so not to compete with the ongoing conversation.
In the TV app, during video playback each participant can set their personal soundtrack and subtitle preferences within the video player without negatively effecting the experience of others — a hidden accessibility feature if I ever saw one — and should someone prematurely leave a session before the TV show or movie concluded, the title would be waiting for them in their Up Next queue ready for them to resume at their own leisure.
Transferring playback to the big screen on Apple TV is almost as effortless, but you must first make sure you are logged into the correct TV profile which can be changed inside Control Centre where your active SharePlay session will display. Selecting the SharePlay tile within Control Center will ask you to confirm the transfer to Apple TV and prompt you to doubly confirm on your active FaceTime device. After successfully connecting, a prominent white SharePlay logo will appear in the top right and any SharePlay compatible content listed will include a SharePlay logo within its metadata during your session, however it would be better if the logo was permanently visible to help promote the feature so that shared experiences could be planned ahead of time.
Of course there are some caveats to sharing experiences through FaceTime. All participants in a call must have an active subscription to the service hosting the shared content or must have previously purchased the iTunes TV Show or Movie being shared — though sadly you can’t mix subscription access with access to a title purchased through iTunes.
Users not subscribed will be prompted, whilst purchased feature films will prompt users to rent the content should the option be available — likely prompting customers to double dip on content they already have access to².
As for Apple Music, Apple Fitness+, Apple TV+ and Apple channels, they all have generous trials but I would welcome a prompt to subscribe via notification or allow a one-time introductory SharePlay session to hook users in.
SharePlay compatibility is slowly rolling out across the App Store with early universal experiences already available. Over the last couple of days our team have enjoyed sharing songs via Apple Music and, meditation via Apple Fitness+ along with new updates for Night Sky, Vinyls and Relax Melodies.. all of which work seamlessly across regions.
Sadly the same can’t be said for TV app content. That’s mostly down to outdated broadcasting restrictions and a successful-yet-outdated business model from TV and movie studios who continue to sell broadcast rights to multiple distributors and broadcasters around the globe. TV app content cannot be shared across regions — yes, even Apple keynotes — and that's because Apple would be breaking broadcasting rules in certain regions meaning that some customers will incur extra cost, Apple turn a blind eye, and the industry continues to bury its head in the sand. It's really the only thing holding back such a welcomed addition to Apple's platforms.
Long standing TV app issues and legal limitations aside, my most anticipated feature for the year delivers on its promise to its users and gifts developers an opportunity to change how we share experiences with family and friends, both online and in person. Bravo to everyone involved in delivery something truly accessible, inclusive, intuitive, and befitting of the company’s core values.
SharePlay is available today on Apple TV HD, Apple TV 4K, iPhone and iPad as part of this week’s 15.1 update and comes highly recommended.
Bonus Content: SharePlaying All Over the World
Over the summer we’ve been thinking of many different ways to utilise SharePlay. Devon and myself had been dreaming up fun bonus content for the podcast and more ways to interact with Screen Times readers (more on this soon), but living either side of the Atlantic it quickly became apparent that region locks would be imposed and some permanent additions to my home theatre setup would be needed in order to circumvent those regional restrictions. Whilst you could easily switch between multiple iCloud and iTunes accounts and play with your main networks connections, I wanted a permanent solution that would be a button press away and not play havoc with my HomeKit home.
Once everything arrived, I signed into my travel router, set my destination via my VPN’s config file, signed into my US account and connected my secondary Apple TV and iPad mini to the new network, whilst making sure to disable the Home Hub under Settings > AirPlay and HomeKit.
Now I can enjoy SharePlay with friends on the other side of the world on Apple TV without having to worry about regional restrictions.
There’s already a tonne of TV content to share through iTunes purchases, Apple channel subscriptions and stand alone apps that integrate with the TV app. We’ll add to this list as we find more, so if you find one that you don’t see here please let myself, Devon, James or Jonathan know on Twitter and we’ll be sure to add it.
1. SharePlay is expected to join macOS Monterey later this Fall at which point I will revisit the feature.
2. A long standing issue continues to plague the TV app in new and exciting ways. If two participants purchased the same TV show but one purchased a complete boxset (or an incomplete boxset removed from sale) and the other purchased the same TV content as single seasons, users are prompted to pay for the TV episode again as the TV app is built on iTunes Store foundations instead of catalogue content within a customers library.
Sigmund is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ScreenTimes where he began his Apple TV coverage in 2016. With an unwavering passion for Apple, storytelling and storytellers alike, he writes about Apple TV with a focus on the arts, development, tvOS, home theatre and accessibility. Sigmund also co-host’s Magic Rays of Light, a weekly podcast exploring the world of Apple TV and the many talents bringing our screens to life.