Unlike virtual reality which creates the illusion of being in a different place, augmented reality systems add information to a user's view to help them  work, shop or drive.

Metaio technology has been used by US retailer Macy's, BMW and furniture retailer Ikea. BMW, for example, has demonstrated glasses that display navigation data and other travel information, and link up with cameras on the outside of a car, to let a driver see "through" the vehicle for tasks like parking. A startup called Augment offers software for iOS and Android that lets users visualize 3D renderings within the space in front of them, for jobs like designing store displays.

Metaio virtual reality
Metaio in action across the road from the Techworld office in London. Image: Metaio

AR might prove to be the next step in user interfaces, an area where Apple has often led the way. Some of its biggest rivals have already started to explore the area.

Google Glass, now being redesigned for consumers but still available for business, gave AR a high profile and suffered the consequences in the form of the initial public reaction. Microsoft has a lot riding on its HoloLens concept, which has no shipping date yet but is tied into the company's next OS, Windows 10.

Asked about media reports of the Metaio acquisition Thursday, Apple didn't confirm or deny it. "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans," the company said in an email message.