Piictu app invites users to communicate through photos

You might have heard of Photovine, Google’s(s goog) photo sharing app which was abruptly retired last month after Google shut down Slide. But the app, which prompted people to create groups of photos built around one topic, wasn’t the first to try it.

Piictu, a New York startup now part of TechStars’ New York class, unveiled a very similar product back in July. Now, the iPhone app (s aapl) is out of beta, and is taking its invitation to build photo conversations to the public, without the added competition from Google.

With Piictu, users are invited to interact and converse through photos. They can upload a photo with a caption, and then users respond with other pictures that build off the initial idea. No additional text can be entered after the initial photo; the interaction lives on through photos or “piics,” in the vernacular of the app. For example, if someone uploads a picture of their tattoo and writes “Show me your ink”, it can set off a chain of replies from people displaying their tattoos. Or a conversation can build around pictures of fortune cookie messages, a user’s interpretation of what’s cute, or around simple games in which people upload the next picture in a series.

Co-Founder Jonathan Slimak told me that while photo sharing apps like Instagram are popular and center on memories, Piictu tries to explore the way photos are used as methods of interaction.

“It’s not about nice color, composition or filters, it’s about the message; it’s communicating and how the picture fits it into the context,” he said.

Users can get creative with their responses, and when text is needed, they can write on post-its and photograph that. But the main idea is to tap into visual culture and let people use photos as their words. Slimak said Piictu can foster or encourage memes and can also be a place for gamified use cases. Down the road, each new photo stream, for instance, will have leaderboards, presumably based on the popularity of a piic.

Ultimately, Slimak sees a way to make money by helping brands use Piictu to engage their customers and solicit user-generated content. He said the company is already in talks with brands about how to tap Piictu to accomplish that.

Next up are more refined social tools for Piictu, which should arrive in the next couple weeks. Right now, streams are public and users can follow any stream or person they like. They can also share their photos on social networks. In the coming weeks, users will be able to share streams with specific people and build conversations with just friends. Piictu will also introduce its game mechanics soon, as well as an API for other developers who want to build apps using Piictu.

Piictu, which has seven employees now, is still about a month away from TechStars’ NYC demo day, but don’t be surprised if they announce funding before then. Slimak said Piictu is close to announcing a round of funding from some institutional investors. I like the idea of Piictu, and it reminds me a little of Canvas, the successor to 4chan that also promotes visual conversations. Piictu, however, is focused on photos and is mobile only. I think it will be interesting to see if Piictu can build a lasting network around photos as communication. We already build conversations around photos, but will they be as successful as the exclusive means of communication?