Google Buys BumpTop: 3-D Multitouch Tablet Interface on the Way?

Is there a tablet in Google’s (s goog) future with a three-dimensional, multitouch user interface? It’s increasingly likely, given that the search giant has just acquired BumpTop, a startup whose unique software creates a 3-D environment where users can toss files and folders around as though they were playing cards, stack them in related piles and “hang” them on the virtual walls. If Google is working on an iPad-style tablet, as many believe that it is, a BumpTop-style interface would be dramatic departure from the typical 2-D app/icon approach, and could provide a significant alternative to the look and feel of Apple’s iPad (s AAPL).

A post on the BumpTop website on Sunday confirmed the acquisition, and said the company’s existing software (which was available for both Windows and Mac computers) “will no longer be available for sale [and] no updates to the products are planned.” Despite this, however, sources say the purchase of the company isn’t just another case of Google “acqu-hiring” some talented developers (something it has been doing a lot of recently).

Instead, they say Google is looking at the company’s 3-D, multitouch interface — or elements of it — as a potential addition to a tablet device. Mark McQueen at Wellington Financial also seems to see the potential for this, saying in his blog post:

Given the arm wrestling going on between Apple and Google over who will have the sweetest user experience, Bumptop’s cool desktop and underlying technology are a natural piece of Google’s user interface puzzle as they prepare to take on the current kings of all consumer electronics. The ones down the street in Cupertino.

There’s no question that the iPad is a revolutionary device in many ways, with its form factor and multitouch interface, but the look of the desktop is surprisingly boring, with tiny app icons spread out in a typical desktop grid. If Google is looking for something more dramatic to set its own tablet-type device apart from the crowd, BumpTop’s 3-D desktop would certainly fit the bill. As shown in the video below, icons representing files and folders can be flipped, stacked, fanned out, resized and manipulated in various ways. And perhaps just as important, BumpTop also holds patents on its interface.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed, but the Wellington Financial blog speculates that the price was in the $35-$40 million range. According to a recent profile of the company in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto-based company has raised $1.65 million from GrowthWorks Capital and Extreme Venture Partners, as well as angel investor and former Macintosh designer Andy Hertzfeld. According to Startup North, Canadian entrepreneur and angel investor Austin Hill was also involved in funding the company.

Speculation about a Google acquisition began with a tweet from someone in the Canadian startup community, which was noticed by TechCrunch, but then deleted (although StartupNorth got a screenshot). A post then appeared at the Wellington Financial blog speculating that the company had been acquired by Google, and the BumpTop website was later updated with confirmation of the deal.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Why the iPad is Right For the Enterprise