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Microsoft's Thinga.Me app turns images of real-world stuff into digital objects

Microsoft’s Garage skunkworks is responsible for all sorts of digital experiments, mostly in the form of apps that vary in degrees of usefulness. That’s partially the point, as it’s the company’s proving ground for mobile experiments, and its hits outnumber its misses.

Among its products, there’s Word Flow, the curvy virtual keyboard that makes it easier to type one-handed; Mimicker Alarm, a clock which forces you to complete challenging games in order to silence sounds; and Fetch!, an iOS app that distinguishes dog breeds based on pics. And now there’s another: Thinga.Me, an app which is best described as a sort of Pinterest for real-world objects.

Thinga.Me’s tagline is “collecting things, not photos,” and that’s a fairly apt description. Here’s the basic idea: if you stumble upon an object that you really want to remember and share — a particularly arresting piece of street art, for instance, or a unique pub coaster — you can snap a pic with Thinga.Me.

The app detects, isolates, snips away the background using GrabCut (a ten-year-old product of Microsoft’s Research division, apparently), and then lets you fine-tune the result to ensure unwanted bits don’t blend into the aforementioned object. The finished product is a digital memento that you can “place” on Thinga.Me’s digital shelves. It’s like the digital equivalent of a stamp collection.

Related: Microsoft’s Fetch! will classify your dog’s breed

The concept isn’t new. Product Camera, a popular Android camera app by imaging startup Camera51, similarly masks out the background behind the subjects of photos to create “digital objects.” But Thinga.Me is unique in its depth of features: you can tag particular objects, put together a showcase of your favorites, and share collections with your social media followers and friends.

“As a team, we’ve been frustrated that there aren’t decent tools that allow us to digitize … [the] physical things that we care about … in a way that makes them look great,” Microsoft said in a blog post. “Thinga.Me is designed to fill this gap. [The] simple act of removing an item from its background starts to make it feel less like a photo and more like a physical thing, even though it’s still a digital representation.”

That last point is debatable, of course — there’s a very palpable difference between a figurine and a photo of a figurine — but at the same time, there’s an undeniable appeal to collating cool objects in a digital scrapbook. It’s the same sort of ingrained urge that drives some folks to collect baseball cards and matchbooks, and, assuming it’s an emotion on which Thinga.Me is able to capitalize, the app should have no trouble developing a passionate following.

Thinga.Me isn’t publicly available, yet, but Microsoft is accepting sign-ups for a future iOS beta.