What Apple's Latest Move Tells us About the Future of Reality

"Time to Walk" might not seem like a big deal at first glance, but the culture shift it points to is.

Photo Credit: Apple

Today, in an official blog post, Apple announced “Time to Walk,” an audio walking experience for Fitness+ subscribers.

Each original Time to Walk episode invites users to immerse themselves in a walk alongside influential and interesting people as they share thoughtful and meaningful stories, photos, and music. Time to Walk can be enjoyed anytime and anywhere with Apple Watch and AirPods or other Bluetooth headphones.

The first guests listed in the post are Dolly Parton, Draymond Green, Shawn Mendes, and Uzo Aduba.

From a business standpoint, it’s a pretty clear play to lock in customers who’ve signed up for the free trial (Fitness+ launched ~6 weeks ago—and the trial period is for 3 months).

At launch, Fitness+ marketing focused on its video workouts and Apple Watch integration—a pretty straightforward service that builds on the breakaway success of Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.

But “Time to Walk” is a less expected avenue; in essence, we’re talking about putting specific parameters on the podcast format and dressing it up in new packaging.

But while this announcement might not rank high among the list of Apple’s other recent announcements, there’s a bigger picture it points to that is very notable: the integration of media technologies into our daily routines, a sort of precursor to what Kevin Kelly calls the “Mirrorworld.”

In this case, Apple gets something that so many virtual, mixed, and augmented reality companies/studios/et al. don’t—that tech can only change as fast as culture.

So what exactly is interesting about “Time to Walk”?

Apple is clearly trying to condition the market to have more basic, lifelike experiences and “interactions” as part of their out-of-home routines. Where we might think of these sessions as “modified podcasts,” Apple is thinking of them as primitive augmented reality with some (admittedly key) features left out.

From a technical standpoint, there’s clear evidence that Apple angling in this direction with the rollout of its sophisticated and high-priced (“annoyingly incredible”) over-ear headphones and its investments in spatial audio, which three-dimensionalizes sound, even for 2D platforms like Netflix.

The upshot of this 1-2 punch? That Apple is emphasizing high-quality, lifelike audio in its present and future efforts.

With this framework in mind, it’s easy to imagine how, whenever mainstream, consumer smartglasses are capable of full augmented reality, Dolly Parton’s walks are accompanied by a visual representation of Dolly right on that walk with you. As context awareness improves in the back end (both environmental and in user preferences), we might imagine how an interactive, virtual Dolly might prompt conversations “with” us.

In the lightest iteration, this would be akin to a text-based video game—there would be intermittent prompts for you to “ask” Dolly one of a select number of questions before you. This would fork the conversation in real time, and give it the feel of an authentic chat. At the more robust end, we could imagine a time in the coming decades when an AI “version” of Dolly walks alongside us. She would be both a reflection of the real human Dolly and of Apple’s underlying aims in offering her as a new feature of your personal environment.

Apple is notoriously perfectionist, and this is proving out even more so with the complexities of immersive digital media like AR and VR. Rather than race to make a big splash for the unprepared masses, Apple is taking its, ahem, time to walk these technologies into our lives—one step at a time.

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