Apple acquires Metaio

Turn out the lights … the party’s just starting. Leading AR tools and app developer Metaio of Germany has been acquired by Apple. The company is now cloaked in darkness but we’re waiting for a cloud of AR butterflies to emerge from Apple.

Metaio, based in Munich, is one of the leading companies in the augmented reality segment and if you count actual customers and professional projects, the company is the leader in commercial augmented reality. The company has been an enthusiastic promoter of itself and of AR and it has been a regular sponsor for conferences built around digital reality technologies including its own InsideAR conference. So it was a huge shock to the AR community when the company cancelled the InsideAR conference just weeks before opening day. Then the company went silent.

Last year's InsideAR was very successful so when it was abruptly cancelled this year the speculation about the acquisition of Metaio gained strength. (Source: Metaio)
Last year’s InsideAR was very successful so when it was abruptly cancelled this year, the speculation about the acquisition of Metaio gained strength. (Source: Metaio)

This wasn’t some struggling conference that was headed for a fail – AR is on fire, InsideIO has been successful since 2006, and Metaio is a hero company in the space. As soon as the company cancelled the show and pulled down the shutters, there were whispers that the company had been sold. The smart money was on Google, a big-time AR acquisitor in its own right. Google spun off, and is heavily backing Magic Leap, which has an AR headset like Microsoft’s Hololens, Epson’s Moverio, Meta, Vuzix, and Phasespace.

The smart money was wrong

The word is out, TechCrunch has revealed that Apple is the company that bought Metaio. In hindsight it should have been obvious. Google might not be a chatty company but it doesn’t clamp the lid down on its acquisitions like Apple does. Metaio’s customers were notified that the company’s products were off the market and when current contracts were fulfilled, the company was over and out. Bye bye, it was nice to know you.

Cue the sturm und drang or street celebrations depending on one’s point of view vis a vis Apple. The engineers at Apple are putting together the pieces for some killer digital reality apps that will probably take advantage of iOS and the company’s mobile products. (Traditionally, at least in the post iPhone era, the company has not pushed its hottest technology to the PC first.) In 2013 Apple acquired Israeli company PrimeSense – no one saw that one coming either, but there were leaks galore from the Israeli press that put the deal at $350 million or so. There is no information on price this time, though the Webverse spit up a document that shows Apple payed a Euro a share for Metaio’s stock adding up to around 30 million Euros. It’s verification that Apple is the buyer, but it’s no indication of the final price.

Recently, Apple filed a patent for a VR headset that seems similar to the Google Cardboard and the company has an earlier patent application for an Oculus style headset. According to Patently Apple, the company has a wealth of AR patents. Apple has also signalled its interest in electric cars – a very mobile platform, which is making increasing use of AR.

In fact, Metaio came out of the automotive industry. The company was founded by Thomas Alt and Peter Meier as a result of work they did for Volkswagon and the company has several automotive applications including tools for automotive repair, sales, and factory floor automation. For instance, Robot company Kuka has developed an application enabling robots in automotive plants to check their work against the CAD model.

In this not-great photo found on the Internet Metaio enabled Kuka to develop and application that lets the robot check its work against a CAD model for verification of its work.
In this not-great photo found on the Internet, Metaio enabled Kuka to develop an application that lets the robot check its work against a CAD model for verification.

The other obvious interest for Apple is the work Metaio has done for mapping through its Junaio browser, which enables users to point the phone at places or things and get an AR view of additional information. The company has 3D tracking options and also SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping). It has pioneered markerless tracking and Thomas Alt talked about the work the company was doing in RGB-D a technology for 3D camera tracking in cameras.

This is an obviously good deal for Apple. Metaio is an inventive and enthusiastic company  with established, albeit slightly singed customers. It has an AR SDK that’s been used for a range of applications and supports iOS, Android, and Windows, and there is a plugin for Unity.

Last year at AWE 2014 and InsideAR the company showed off the work it was doing with thermal touch, a camera and software solution that enables machines to use the heat signature left as a person touches an object to be read and to stimulate a response. The demo used a model car and showed a person touching it to turn on its lights. Thermal touch could be used to create instant keyboards or a gaming board, as the company’s chess demo suggests.

Before InsideAR was cancelled Thomas Alt promised the company would show the advances it had made with thermal touch and also the work it has been doing with depth cameras and RGB-D.

Apple acquires a bunch of stuff and the company takes its time rolling out a resulting product — if it ever does. More often than not the company uses the technology and acquired talent in its development and produces something very different from that of the company it has acquired. However, Metaio has a lot of technology for Apple to play with and after the PrimeSense acquisition it seems inevitable that the company will add 3D sensors to its products and with Mataio it has the ability to use those sensors for apps and probably for its own SDK. With Google and Microsoft headed in the same direction, it seems Apple has no choice, but it will be fun to see the new paths and different directions Apple takes on its way to building something fun and useful.

Related links:

Transforming interfaces: Metaio’s Thermal Touch 

Junaio augmented reality iPhone browser connects real and virtual worlds.

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