Kumar and Colleagues Win a Place for Bubble Tea at the Emoji Table
Sometime in 2020, along with tiny symbols representing the pickup truck, mouse trap, tamale, and dozens of other things, a new symbol representing a glass of bubble tea will join the growing collection of emojis available for mobile phones and other devices.
The bubble tea emoji was proposed by Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar and three colleagues: her former student, Sujay Khandekar (MS CS ‘18 and now a Software Engineer at Samsara, Inc.); University of California, San Diego student Timothy Deng; and the artist who put together the bubble tea character, Yiying Lu (she also created Twitter’s now-retired Fail Whale).
Kumar’s bubble tea emoji grew out of her ongoing research into communication-by-emoji and the Opico emoji-based social media app developed by Khandekar and the rest of Kumar’s research group.
The new emoji is part of a key step forward in emoji construction, she said, because of the way that it’s constructed.
The bubble tea emoji accepted for inclusion by The Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit that sets and maintains standards for keyboards and emoji, is actually a collection of three existing characters linked by what’s known as a zero width joiner (pronounced zwidge), an invisible Unicode character that links other characters into a single image.
A single-character bubble tea emoji had previously been rejected by the consortium, judged to not be of broad enough interest despite the popularity of the sweet, milky drink that originated in Taiwan.
But using ZWJs to link existing characters allows for the emoji language, so to speak, to evolve and have greater flexibility and immediacy without requiring a truly new character for every object or concept on Earth, Kumar said. It allows single-image characters to serve as a sort of alphabet.
“I don’t think every fad should turn into an emoji, but the ZWJ proposal offers a way to get some things that are trending. They’re popular enough that people want to use them right now,” she said. “We can be in a world where things kind of phase in and out, to dynamically have a language that grows or shrinks.”
Emojis grew out of the use of emoticons, the familiar symbols created by combining keyboard characters to create smiles, frowns, and other expressions and gestures that first became popular as Internet use grew in the 1990s. The first emojis were created in 1999 as a more formal version of emoticons by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita.
The need for a bubble tea emoji was justified by data derived from Opico. Kumar says it’s been interesting, instructive, and surprising to watch how Opico’s users create their own sequences of emojis to fill the gaps in the available characters.
“This was an unintended consequence of the Opico dataset,” she said.
Kumar is also using data generated by Opico to study just how much information they can extract from the emojis people use to, say, review a restaurant or communicate about a particular experience, like reading a book or watching a movie.
Written reviews of a place or product tend to come from people at the extremes, those who really like or really dislike the experience. But emojis are easier to use and for some more fun, she said, potentially making it more likely to get better information about experiences that are somewhere between awful and amazing.
“It’s this really nice shorthand for people to communicate,” she said. “We’re trying to leverage that.”
And she and her colleagues hope to create more emojis.
“It’s really interesting to see how the language will evolve,” Kumar said. “You want to make sure you’re reflecting the culture, you’re being inclusive, you’re letting people express diverse concepts.”