Apple revealed many new software improvements during this week's WWDC opening keynote, flowing freely from platform to platform. iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS 12 Monterey, and watchOS 8 were all mentioned by name. Still, for the second year running, tvOS shunned the chance of a spotlight-stealing solo act, preferring to lead an ensemble in telling the company's vision for the home.
Headlined by the introduction of innovative social features, tvOS 15 also includes a supporting cast of; enhanced Siri Control and Home Theatre mode with HomePod mini, Spatial Audio for private listening, HomeKit integration improvements and several welcomed tweaks across Apple TV's big-screen experience.
As always, developer betas are now available, with public betas expected in the coming weeks. With the final version expected to release to the general public in the autumn/fall, let us look forward together by detailing the best new features in tvOS 15.
Following a year that saw us sheltered in front of the telly during the height of a global pandemic, it was clear that our solitary screen times needed re-moulding into shared experiences. Apple's introduction of SharePlay grants my wish from last week to allow users the ability to connect through shared media experiences right inside FaceTime calls, expanding those calls to movies, TV shows, music and screen sharing across iOS, iPadOS, macOS and tvOS.
In an active call (or within an iMessage chat), users can switch to a participating app and begin playback of their chosen media, followed by a press of the SharePlay button to start playback with everyone in the call. Play state syncs in real-time to all participants with controls available for all, so you can be confident that you'll no longer give away a jump scare or punch-line moments before your friends.
SharePlay experiences can be shifted to the big screen through Control Centre on Apple TV, allowing users to continue their conversation on their nearby device. Interestingly, the availability of a SharePlay API offers third-party access to the feature without integrating with the TV app, allowing for more enthusiastic adoption. Early adopters committed to the SharePlay feature include Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu, HBO Max, Masterclass, Paramount+, Pluto TV, TikTok and Twitch, with more expected to announce support in the coming months.
Other important FaceTime features coming to iOS 15, including smart volume and voice isolation, will play an important part in the SharePlay experience for Apple TV. Voice isolation will be most important for those routing their Apple TV through home theatre equipment, with some setups having the potential to add audio delay resulting in an echo effect without it.
Questions remain on how tvOS 15 will sync content across NTSC (29.97 fps) and PAL (25 fps) for a seamless SharePlay experience, and there's still a lot to know about content licensing. Whilst third parties will no doubt implement their own policies, it's unclear how temporary licenses for purchased iTunes content will be handled (and if those licenses can be shared across regions). What's known at this early stage is that iTunes extras will not support the SharePlay feature at launch.
TV app sharing features
The TV app also adopts new social features within Watch Now with two new social-driven content rows. Shared With You highlights TV shows and Movies shared by your friends through iMessage with the ability for you to bring content to the front of the row by pinning the suggestion in Messages. For All of You is a new row focused on TV show and movie recommendations based on interests for everyone in the room. Simply hold down on the row to select who is present to get the very best suggestions for an in-person group viewing experience.
HomePod Home Theatre
HomePod minis will soon have the ability to be paired as the default output for Apple TV 4K, allowing for crisp computational audio delivering surround sound from one or two HomePod minis. The recent addition of HDMI Audio Return Channel support for the second-generation Apple TV 4K also makes HomePod mini a compelling value option for many looking to improve the audio experience for connected devices beyond Apple TV 4K. With Lossless audio promised later this year, it is currently unknown what audio soundtracks a HomePod mini stereo pair will support when set as default audio out. What is certain is that the new $200 option will significantly improve the TV viewing experience for most Apple TV users without breaking the bank.
Siri expansion with HomePod
One long-time personal request has been the ability to send Siri commands to Apple TV via HomePod. With upgrades to HomePod's audioOS and tvOS, Siri commands go beyond playback controls. Users soon can enter a room and tell Siri to playback TV shows and movies compatible with the TV app's universal search.
Siri commands are linked to the active account on Apple TV, allowing greater potential for those with accessibility needs who may rely on their support network to initiate playback. For playback to seem as seamless as Apple's opening keynote demo, third party apps will need to adopt last year's tvOS user profiles in place of in-app user profiles. Purchased iTunes content will need to skip iTunes extras menus and make playback a priority.
It's also worth noting that with Siri expanding to third party devices later this year, companies like Sonos have the potential to adopt the personal assistant. Siri works on third party devices by sending requests through your home network to HomePod keeping users data private.
Also coming to tvOS 15 is the inclusion of Spatial Audio for AirPods. Debuting last year on iOS and iPadOS, Spatial Audio creates a private, virtual surround sound experience that tracks your headphones position in relation to Apple TV. For this wizardry to work the Apple TV calculates the direction the user is looking when they initiate playback of a video based on AirPods onboard sensors. If the user moves around, the Apple TV and AirPods will recalculate the position in order to re-enable it. Spatial Audio works with select Dolby Atmos compatible movies and TV shows. In addition, tvOS 15 sees the addition of Noise Control and Spatial Audio options within Control Centre, allowing you to quickly switch to the most suitable mode at any given moment along with quick pairing to nearby H1 and W1 compatible headphones with a tap of the TV button.
Introduced last year, native access to HomeKit Secure Video feeds on Apple TV will see some enhancements with the introduction of iCloud+. Subscribers to the 5GB iCloud plan will receive access to 1 camera feed whilst the 200GB plan will increase from 2 to 5, and the 2TB plan will grant subscribers access to an unlimited number of feeds accommodated by a new grid view within displaying up-to 4 feeds at a time. Each video feed will allow easy access to relevant accessories within a space with relevant notifications displaying status changes on locks and other security-related HomeKit accessories.
Not mentioned during Monday's presentation, notifications can be set per category within AirPlay and HomeKit Settings. Users can set notifications for cars, animals, people - and soon - packages, with the option to silence all on-screen alerts from 5 mins up to 24 hours.
• Video player user interface redesign
Apple's video player user interface has a new design allowing for easier access to audio soundtracks, subtitles, now playing info, Picture in Picture and SharePlay. Minimal and less distracting than the current layout the scrubbing preview tile overlaps now-playing metadata.
• Add User in Control Center
A new add-user button in Control Centre streamlines the login process. Users with iOS devices running iOS 14 and above just need to hold their iOS device close to the Apple TV and input the four-digit code shown on-screen.
• Streamlined app sign-in
Apple has introduced a new system sign-in screen that allows for a consistent sign-in process across apps. The new tvOS sign-in screen shows a "Sign in with Apple Device" option when implemented by the app owner. When users choose this option, a notification will prompt a nearby iOS device and use Face ID or Touch ID to sign in through iCloud keychain, intelligently choosing your login information for the related app.
• New Aerial screensavers
tvOS is adding new aerial screensavers for the Grand Canyon, Iceland, Patagonia, Scotland, and Yosemite.
• Siri time-based HomeKit requests
Siri is adding new time-based HomeKit requests. For example "Turn the TV off in 1 hour."
• Apple TV Remote for iOS
iOS 15 includes a new remote with additions, including a channel up and down button and a guide button. One nicety is the Home button on iPhone X and up now acting as the Siri button for the software remote when inside the remote app.
Instead of the reimagining some were expecting, tvOS 15 is more a remaster of a classic with a trickle of special features aimed at first-time watchers with subtle clues hinting to a brighter future for long-time fans. With new sharing features potentially redefining the way we experience TV together, Apple TV's upcoming update follows an outstanding seven months for the platform. Those seven months have included the debut of Home Theatre Mode with HomePod in November, Color Balance in April and Audio Return Channel passthrough a few weeks ago. Those significant innovations by the tvOS engineering team prove that the platform walks its own path. My only hope is the next stop on that trail is a long-overdue reimagining of the TV app and tvOS.
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.