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Emojis get their own conference, and become a big deal in tech

"The Scream" on display at Emojicon.
Deborah Findling | CNBC
"The Scream" on display at Emojicon.

Ancient Egyptians had their hieroglyphics. Now, millennials and technophiles have their own modern-day version of an esoteric code that's hard to decipher.

Emojis have become the universal way the digital world communicates with each other — as well as a staple of smartphones, tablets and even Apple's new laptop. They've been around for years, but a recent San Francisco-based conference, dubbed "Emoijcon," shone a spotlight on how important the quirky characters are becoming to major brands, tech enthusiasts and those who create them.

The conference was organized by Jeanne Brooks, Jennifer 8. Lee and Yiying Lu, founders of "Emojination," a campaign that works with Unicode, the international computing standard for use of different languages or scripts. Last week, the consortium approved 51 new characters for use in mobile devices.

Most of the world's writing system includes Unicode, and every character receives a different number, which has extended to emojis. Emojination has designed a dumpling, chopsticks, fortune cookie and a takeout box, and has submitted them for consideration.

Underscoring how the characters are becoming both a social phenomenon and branding opportunity, sponsors like GE, Adobe and Baidu already use emojis in their businesses. Domino's Pizza lets its Twitter followers order by emoji, while Coca-Cola's #ShareaCoke campaign automatically generated a custom emoji.

'Every character in the world'

Screens of the KIMOJI app
Source: iTunes
Screens of the KIMOJI app

Tayfun Karadeniz, a mobile app entrepreneur and CEO of EmojiXpress, is one of the voting members of the Unicode Consortium and part of the group's Emoji Committee. EmojiXpress is the company behind one of the most downloaded emoji keyboards that combines emojis and stickers.

Unicode wants to "include every character in the world and make sure to look at the existing characters in the world, they assign it a unique code so different devices can communicate to each other," said Karadeniz "Then an Android device knows what the text message that an iOS device sent means."

Karadeniz explained that the idea for emojis originated in the 1990s, when early Japanese telecom providers let users send pixelated faces to each other, which gradually evolved into a wide array of faces, gestures and animals, among other things.

Unicode has become an unexpected arbiter, but not in the business of creating emoji images. Instead, the group looks at what exists, then decides on whether the popularity is enough that it should be considered for the universal standard. When it created the iPhone in 2007, Apple made its own emojis to comply with this code.

"To them, this was just another alphabet they had to support," said Karadeniz. "Originally when the iPhone originally came out, the emoji keyboard was only available to the Japanese region."

What seemed like something only Japanese users would use, quickly grew in popularity with Americans and other smartphone users around the world. With Apple's iOS5 operating system, the emoji keyboard is now unlocked for all users.



Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Software Engineering at Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Software Engineering at Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.

Celebrities like Kim Kardashian make customized emoji keyboards, which are actually considered "stickers" or images instead of numbered characters like emojis. Using stickers rather than emojis can come in the form of animations or still images, and they only work on select platforms — much like Facebook messenger stickers that you can only send on the social network.

Though emojis are generally known as nondescript yellow faces, in recent years there has been a push by consumers for more diversity. Apple introduced diverse emojis last year allowing users to choose between different skin colors and more. One of the contenders approved by last Tuesday is a character wearing a hijab, or a scarf worn for religious reasons by Muslim women.

The idea came from Rayouf Alhumedhi's hijab emoji, and is part of a wide-ranging effort to make emojis more ethnically diverse. As a 15-year-old Saudi teen living in Germany, Alhumedhi didn't see herself in the emojis that are currently available.

"There are millions of hijabi women like me who use digital media avidly," she told the Emojicon conference. "If there are four emojis, four spaces on the keyboard reserved for the four stages of a mailbox, why on earth isn't there one for a hijab for the 500 million" hijab-wearing women, she added.

With the help of some of the industry's players, she polished her proposal, inspired by a "how to" guide on proposing an emoji she found on Snapchat.

Emojis on mobile phones
Miguel Medina | AFP | Getty Images

However, proposals can however take a long time to be approved. Proposed emojis are sent in by an October deadline, presented in November at a Unicode meeting and then may take more than a year to land in the set of standardized emoji.