Apple's first big AR content project is a 'For All Mankind' tie-in

The free app is now available to download, one week ahead of the S2 premiere

'For All Mankind: Time Capsule' ( Apple)

A mixtape. A VHS cassette. A lovingly rendered Apple II. These 80s throwbacks and more are at the heart of For All Mankind: Time Capsule, a new augmented reality app built entirely by Apple to help fans of its alternate history drama catch up on crucial backstory before the second season kicks off next week.

Augmented reality tie-ins aren’t all that unusual, but Time Capsule is fascinating for a few reasons. For one, it serves as a surprisingly helpful narrative tool for one of Apple TV+’s most intricate shows. The series opens with a Russian cosmonaut taking humanity’s first steps on the Moon in 1969, beating American rivals to the milestone by less than two weeks. From there, the remaining ten episodes dig into the personal, political and scientific ramifications of the United States’ second-place finish, and don’t worry -- we won’t spoil things here. That said, the second season begins a full ten years into that fictional future, which left plenty of plot points and bits of character development for the app to explore.

In Time Capsule, users progress through a series of character-driven moments centered around augmented reality objects. The mixtape mentioned earlier, for instance, is a collection of 70s classics curated by one character and delivered to another. And the Apple II? It’s used to display “D Mail” sent between characters years before email became widely used in our universe. (In For All Mankind’s parallel history, investment in NASA never tapered off after a string of successful US Moon landings, so personal technology was developed and matured at a much faster pace.)

For series creator and executive producer Ron Moore, embracing augmented reality was an obvious choice -- the difficulty lay in figuring out what role it should play.

“We’ve been talking about having an AR component in the show since the first season,” he told Engadget in an interview. “I think it took us a while to figure out what was the appropriate way to use it in the show, so the idea of using it as fill-in material between the years of the two seasons was something that developed later on.”

As it stands, Time Capsule feels a lot like bonus material; a way to peek at parts of a story left untold because of time or production constraints. And that's how these kinds of projects will continue to feel, Moore said, until consumers are ready to embrace AR at a big enough scale.

"It is nice to be able to give the audience sort of the 'full meal', and I could see as I go forward doing projects, this could be a fun component of that," he added, noting that AR could become part of the "creative conversation" from the earliest stages of production.

Beyond the obvious narrative value, though, For All Mankind: Time Capsule is notable because of who made it. Rather than farm the app out to an external developer, Apple crafted the app end-to-end with support from the show’s writing team, marking a significant first step into AR content for the company. Apple has spent years developing tools to help app developers craft their own clever augmented reality experiences, but to date, its own efforts have been relatively sparse -- think AR easter eggs in event announcements and an app that lets you measure real-world objects.

The fact that Apple has been working on AR companion content for its streaming shows isn’t a surprise -- Bloomberg publicized the plans last year, noting that Apple had originally planned for this kind of auxiliary content to launch in 2020 before pushing it back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With that in mind, Apple’s approach here is quite a bit different than what Bloomberg’s story suggested. Rather than act as a live companion to a show being watched in real-time, Time Capsule is a fully self-contained experience -- one that can be completed in about 45 minutes if you’re rushing, and one that will remain static while the season unfolds. Apple also declined to elaborate when asked if building AR content around its high-profile streaming shows would become standard practice, so it remains unclear just how many other AR initiatives the company has undertaken, or if they'll skew more closely to the concept Bloomberg described.

Still, it’s not hard to be hopeful for what may come next. A steady stream of rumors and reports continue to suggest that Apple is hard at work on a mixed reality headset behind closed doors, and news of Time Capsule’s release is the clearest sign yet that the company is exploring a potential role as an AR content provider, not just the steward of a platform.

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