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Is There an Uncanny Valley for Emoji?

With the latest update, we have lost the sexually suggestive peach emoji — and some of the joy of the animated communication tool

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Tuesday, we were treated to a look at the upcoming iOS 10.2 emoji. Some are totally new, others upgraded. A few in particular, though, show a surprising new attention to detail, forsaking the cartoonish, flat interface of the original emoji. And some people are not having it.

“Apple has changed the appearance of more emoji in iOS 10.2 than in the history of iOS,” says Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge by email. “People feel passionate about their emoji, and do tend to get upset when favorites change!” The peach and dancing woman, in particular, have gone realistic in lieu of their formerly more iconographic looks. (The peach lost about 99 percent of its sexual overtones, and we are all left weeping.)

Part of the initial resistance to the new emoji isn’t just because of the realistic touches — it’s also caused by the sheer size of the update. “There’s no doubt by changing so many emoji [designs] at once, there will be those who aren’t going to like the updates,” Burge says. “In my opinion it’s too early to say if this is a temporary reaction from users seeing new designs for the first time, or if this will be a sentiment that is still seen in the coming months when we are all used to the updates.”

That said, Burge understands the collective unsettling. “Personally, I will miss the quirky charm of the old set, but I do like to look to the future.”

The theory of the uncanny valley usually refers to computer-generated graphics, robotics, and dolls. Essentially, once an animation of some sort becomes too realistic, when it crosses over from cartoon, something happens that makes us uncomfortable and anxious. Things go from enchantingly simulated to overtly eerie very quickly — there’s a thin line. Toy Story is fine, but The Polar Express is too much. Now, we’re all starting to wonder if there’s an uncanny valley for emoji. Do the dancer’s nose and eye details make us uncomfortable? Does this enhanced snake take the image from cute to creepy? Not really, says cartoonist Scott McCloud.

“I think it’s bypassed the whole uncanny valley thing. I don’t think anyone looks at it and feels creeped out,” he says. “But it’s whether they have to squint at their emoji to figure out what they’re looking at. It’s a much more practical consideration.” McCloud says the added realism isn’t making us feel weird or uneasy so much as annoyed. “As our eyes skip over words, we’re very quick to capture the shape and meaning of those words and moving along — and anything that causes us to slow down is irritating. Emoji need to be just as crisp and quick as letters on our screen, and they don’t seem to be doing as good of a job.” McCloud thinks emoji are “going downhill lately; they don’t have that crisp clarity they used to.” While computational load times are getting faster, allowing designers to get more detailed with their work, what’s possibly getting overshadowed and sacrificed is our own cognitive load time. So while a new, highly detailed, realistic emoji might look beautiful on a giant phone screen and load instantly, precious moments might be lost while we try to recognize and interpret it.

Maybe some of this initial discomfort with the iOS 10.2 emoji is due to simple, general dissatisfaction. “Especially with the food ones, for me it’s not so much that it’s too realistic, but too generic,” says emoji illustrator Kevin McCauley. “There used to be a cohesive style, but as the library has expanded and evolved, a lot of the new stuff just looks like stock vector art. It definitely doesn’t match up with the rest of the iOS emoji catalog. The visual language of ‘what emoji look like,’ which for years was essentially the original iOS emoji, has become more fragmented.”

Gedeon Maheux, the cofounder of graphic design company Iconfactory and an emoji creator, says he’s noticed the backlash as well, but doesn’t entirely agree with it. “Overall I think they’re nicer in appearance but their realism levels may interfere with quickly identifying what they are in your chats,” he says. “It’s a tough balancing act to strike just the right mix of simple and realistic to achieve something that is easy to see and understand, especially at small sizes.”

Another reason for the added detail? The cruel passage of time. “Part of this update is about Apple having a clean slate of high-resolution emoji images,” Burge explains. “Some of the older set looked fine at larger sizes, but others were showing their age. I’m sure this update was done as much for technical reasons as anything.” As screens get bigger and pixel resolution gets better, emoji can get more detailed — and it seems like having that ability means Apple will take advantage of it.

But emoji aren’t supposed to be photorealistic; they’re suggestive iconography, not exact statements. Interpreting emoji is something of a game we all play, and the frenzied debates over whether those are really bunny ears is frivolous, yes, but it’s also fun. The more accurate emoji get, the less they become representations. It stops being a symbolic language and instead becomes a series of almost-photos.

“As with most things in life, it takes time to get used to change,” Maheux says. “Users will come to accept and probably even love the new treatments of these emoji, but it will just take time.”