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Does the news we're getting 67 new emoji make you laugh - or cry? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Emoji lords to release 67 new symbols

Tuesday 24th November 2015 8:00 am

If you love smiley faces you’ll weep with joy about the news we’re about to get more emojis! Dr Karl reveals who holds the ultimate emoji power.

We love our families and we love our friends — but many of us have a special love set aside for our smartphones. Besides phone calls, smartphones give us a camera, GPS, a calculator, a notebook and diary, a map of the night sky, a currency calculator, a compass — and access to all our social media. And an increasingly important part of social media is the ‘emoji’ — ‘smileys’ and the like that we attach to texts and emails.

Around mid-2016, the emoji overlords of the universe will release some 67 new emoji for us to use. But who are these emoji overlords, and how did they get their awesome power?

The first thing to realise is that computers do not ‘think’ in terms of words, and pictures of furry kittens and human reproduction. Taking it back to basics, computers deal only in numbers, and in fact, only two numbers — a ‘one’ and a ‘zero’. All they can do with these two numbers is add or subtract them, and store the result. Everything computers do is built on that.

Way back in 1960, the American Standards Association set up ASCII — meaning ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’. It used 128 numbers to represent 128 characters. There were 33 non-printing control characters (such as start of transmission). But in addition, there were some 95 printable characters (such as numbers, upper case and lower case letters, punctuation marks and a few miscellaneous symbols such as the @ symbol, the # symbol, the $ symbol, and so on).

You can see a potential problem, once you get people using computers to communicate around the world — compatibility. There are different currencies, different languages with their own special alphabets, and even different computer manufacturers wanting to use their own way to represent characters.

The obvious way out of this mess was to set up a central body. So Unicode was set up as a standard to deal with text in as many of the world’s writing systems as they could handle — and in a consistent manner. Back in 1987, Joe Becker from Xerox, and Lee Collins and Mark Davis from Apple, started work to develop a “unique, unified, universal encoding” system.

Today, Mark Davis is the President of the Unicode Consortium — so he is the emoji overlord of the universe.

The word ‘emoji’ comes from the Japanese — ‘e’ meaning ‘picture’ and ‘moji’ meaning ‘character’.

Back in 1988, Shigetaka Kurita, the original designer of emoji, was working on mobile internet (very innovative back in those ancient times in the last century).

Shigetaka Kurita created the first 180 emoji. They were based on both objects, and people’s expressions. But it took about a decade for them to get incorporated into Unicode.

Unicode had more important things to do, like getting computers to talk to each other across international borders. So in October 1991, a few years after emoji characters were first thought of, Unicode released Version 1, which brought in scripts from languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and Tibetan. Versions 2, 3, 4 and 5 brought in Cherokee, Mongolian and Phoenician — among many other languages.

And hurrah, version 6 of Unicode in October 2010, besides incorporating Brahmi, playing card symbols and alchemical symbols, also chucked in emoji — 722 of them.

Another 300-or-so emoji got added in versions 7 and 8, including skin tone modifiers, as well as symbols for signs of the zodiac.

How do our emoji overlords decide what to add? One criterion is ‘frequency of use’, that is, is the general public interested enough in using a potential emoji to justify adding it?

So what’s coming up for consideration in version 9 of Unicode in June 2016?

Obviously, 2016 is divisible by 4, so that means that 2016 is an Olympic Games year — so some of the 67 new emoji up for consideration include sports emoji. And of course, once the new emoji have been admitted by the emoji overlords, there’s a time delay before the computer and smartphone manufacturers incorporate them into their latest operating system.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps centuries of civilising discourse will eventually be reduced to mere emoji?

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This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science

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