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Apple reportedly buys augmented reality company Metaio

The German firm, which helped clients build augmented-reality apps, appears to have transferred its shares to Apple.

Germany-based Metaio, which has reportedly been acquired by Apple, helped clients build augmented-reality apps. Metaio

Apple has acquired Metaio, a German maker of tools for building augmented reality apps, according to news reports and an alleged document confirming a transfer of shares.

Apple didn't exactly confirm the deal, instead offering this statement: "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans." Metaio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But several technology news sites reported the acquisition after spotting a tweet hosting a May 22 document on file with the German states' Common Register Portal (see below) that they say confirms Metaio's shares were transferred to Apple.

The news is timely. Just this morning at Google's I/O developer conference, the search giant showed off its latest push in virtual reality (VR), including a new Cardboard headset, kits for letting teachers conduct virtual field trips and a its Jump system for capturing VR video.

Virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) are similar and different: VR is a computer-generated version of the world. In AR, real-life experiences are enhanced (or augmented) with computer-generated images.

Major tech players -- from Facebook to Microsoft to Samsung -- are placing big bets on both AR and VR. Facebook bought the VR headset maker Oculus a year ago for more than $2 billion. Facebook will launch a consumer version of the product next year. Samsung partnered with Oculus to create Gear VR, which is compatible with its flagship smartphones released over the past year, including the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones. Microsoft in January unveiled its own augmented-reality technology, called Hololens.

This acquisition shows Apple plans to be in the game. It comes on the heels of a research note in March from Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Gene Munster saying that Apple has a "small team working and exploring the augmented reality space."

Metaio, which has reportedly done AR work for retailers like Ferrari and Ikea, launched in 2003 in Munich as an offshoot of a Volkswagen project. In 2005, it released one of the first AR design apps that let users put virtual furniture in their virtual living rooms. It later created Junaio, a mobile AR browser available for Android and iOS devices.

Last week, Metaio reportedly ceased product licensing and abruptly canceled the InsideAR conference it hosted annually, leading many to speculate it had been purchased. Some guessed Google was the buyer given the start date Thursday of Google I/O.

Metaio posted this note on its website:

Metaio products and subscriptions are no longer available for purchase. Downloads of your previous purchases will be available until December 15th, 2015, and active cloud subscriptions will be continued until expiration. Email support will continue until June 30th, 2015.