Apple is about to make your iPhone a lot cooler

Camera tricks on future cars
Camera tricks on future cars

Apple could soon change the way you use your iPhone and iPad.

Earlier this week Apple (AAPL) acquired a German company that develops augmented reality software for mobile devices, according to multiple news reports.

Augmented reality makes digital images appear on top of real-life objects when you view them on a smartphone or tablet. Imagine a digital bird appearing on a tree in front of you, or a digital arrow pointing you in the direction of the nearest Starbucks (SBUX).

Metaio, the company Apple acquired, provides the tools for other developers to produce these experiences within their own apps. That means Apple could make augmented reality accessible to the masses through a lot more smartphone apps.

This could be a game-changer for iPhone and iPad customers.

Here's a sampling of how Apple's acquisition could change the way people assess and enjoy reality:

Apple Maps. It's rumored that Maps will be the first application Apple will enhance with augmented reality. A pack of digital penguins, for example, could you lead you to the zoo as you walk along an app's designated path.

metaio penguins
Augmented reality can overlay just about any visual on top of what you see in the real world.

Assessing and planning. Your phone could also make it easier for you to see what's ahead of you -- identifying landmarks, buildings, and far away street signs so you don't overshoot your destination.

metaio road map
Your phone could tell you a lot more information about your environment.

There's also practical personal uses, such as figuring out where to put furniture or appliances in the house.

metaio air conditioner
Where should you put that air conditioner? An augmented reality program can show you.

Commercial impact. Metaio says its technology can help people examine product features and functions more closely. For example, the tires on a showroom car they might consider buying.

metaio ferrari
This specially designed app lets users take a picture of a Ferrari and dissect it virtually.

Communication. The 12-year-old company says building an augmented reality app with its technology, such as transforming an ordinary business card into an interactive visual, takes as little as 30 seconds.

metaio hearts
Augmented reality can make 2D objects appear 3D on screen.

Google, Facebook and Microsoft already have some kind of virtual or augmented reality offering. The Metaio acquisition could help Apple catch up quickly.

There is no shortage of augmented reality apps, and it's still unclear whether the technology will pay off in a big way. But if there's one company that could make it work, it's likely Apple -- with its history of success in making existing technology dead-easy to use for the general public.

With Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference coming up next month, Apple could have some augmented reality plans up its sleeve.

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