The click-baitiness of Mark Gurman’s much-linked piece today — titled alternately “Apple’s TV Box Is Now Mostly Pointless” and “Why Should I Buy an Apple TV Instead of Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast?” — is quickly given away when he writes: “In recent years, the Apple TV has become a less obvious purchase for many Apple fans and content junkies.”
Is it “a less obvious purchase” or “pointless”? Or is it indeed “useful,” as per this later line:
“Integration with HomeKit, Fitness+, AirPods and the iOS remote app is useful.”
But for the sake of argument, I’ll assume he really does believe the Apple TV is “pointless,” and I’ll boil down his argument into what I see as his three main points, paraphrased by me.
Listen, this would’ve been great at the height of the pandemic, but it’s still useful to watch videos and listen to music with your buds on a FaceTime call.
As though now that pandemic restrictions are lifting, everybody’s going to come over and watch movies with me? I don’t know about you but my friends have kids and lives and aren’t going to schlep across town on a Tuesday night just to watch a movie with me, much less a single episode of a TV show — let alone several friends! (Is this a brutal self-own? Do people really just have hoards of friends swinging by all the time?)
And doesn’t anybody have friends in, like, other cities?
I use Plex regularly to watch things with friends remotely, and it’s a flawed experience. Hulu and others started rolling their own “watch together” solutions that frequently required watching from a browser and other hassles. That SharePlay will be a system-wide API that streaming services can tap into is huge, pandemic or not.
I’ll miss things, and that’s totally fine. But, in the meantime, I get to listen to the human voice somewhat close to realistically, with its the natural human pauses, with its rhythms and flows relatively unmediated and natural. Its warmth and music means so much more to me than being caught up.
Ever since Apple brought “Spatial Audio with Dynamic Head Tracking” (emphasis mine) to the AirPods Pro, there has been a lot of conflation between these two distinct features. Recently two Apple experts talked about this with regard to Apple TV. It’s often assumed that Spatial Audio is not possible on Apple TV, because the Apple TV doesn’t have a U1 chip, but this is due to a misunderstanding of what Spatial Audio is.
Spatial Audio mimics having the multiple speakers of a surround sound system by running a 5.1, 7.1, or Atmos audio source through some algorithms to create a binaural audio effect. This is similar to using ear-shaped microphones to capture sound so that when played back on standard headphones, the audio sounds like it’s coming from different directions. Also known as “holophonic sound,” Disney did this at Epcot with an attraction called “Soundsations”:
This is separate from Dynamic Head Tracking, which is what most people seem to think Spatial Audio is. Dynamic Head Tracking is what makes it sound like the audio is coming from the device that is playing the video, even as you turn your head.
Just as it would be possible to have Dynamic Head Tracking without Spatial Audio — basically a flat stereo sound that remained “stationary” while you moved your head — it would be possible to have Spatial Audio without Dynamic Head Tracking.
By default, spatial audio makes it sound like the audio is coming from your iPhone, even when your head moves. You can change this behavior so that the audio sounds like it’s following your head movement.
What this means is that there seems to be no technological reason that existing Apple TVs couldn’t do Spatial Audio, or that if there is, it’s because they’re not powerful enough to process the surround sound data through the necessary algorithms, which seems unlikely.
Honestly, I don’t know why Apple TV doesn’t support Spatial Audio, but it’s not the lack of a U1 chip.
And as long as I’m talking about Spatial Audio with Dynamic Head Tracking, I’m a bit surprised that things like Apple Fitness+ and Apple Arcade don’t feature them.