You'd be forgiven for missing it in the maelstrom of information about the Galaxy S9 yesterday — not to mention the general influx of phone news from MWC — but Samsung has launched its own rival to Apple's Animoji, and it's a positive development for diversity and inclusion in tech.
With Animoji, your iPhone cameras map your facial expressions onto existing emojis, so you can finally be the unicorn you've always known yourself to be. But with AR Emoji — Samsung's less-than-memorable name — your face is transferred onto an emoji of your creation. Remember when The Sims 2 came out and suddenly you could spend days creating a digital version of yourself rather than just a generic avatar with the same hair colour? The comparison to Animoji is like that.
You can tweak all sorts of things, from clothes and glasses to hairstyles, colours and skin tones. When facial recognition tech has repeatedly failed to function for non-white people in the past, this kind of thing really matters. That's why we got male, female and differently skin-toned versions of the existing emojis eventually, and this is the natural evolution.
The ability to represent yourself as the correct race and gender is vital to self and societal acceptance, and if you're reading this thinking it's not, I'd wager you've enjoyed more than a little privilege in your life.
Take SwiftKey's emoji predictions for example, whereby you type a word to bring up the appropriate emoji. iOS phones don't have this problem, but on Android there's only one spot on the predictions bar for the emoji to appear. And it's always the male version, 100% of the time. This might seem like a small thing, but when you live in a society where the message is reinforced over and over again that the default human is male, it's another snowflake in the avalanche.
There's no reason for the man to be first, and no reason you couldn't specify a preference in the app and always receive the appropriate prediction. The default is also yellow-toned, which although intended to be racially-neutral, is realistically often interpreted as white. So if you want a particular emoji, you're getting a man unless you abandon the prediction feature and go into the giant repository of All Emojis Ever to find the female version, and you're getting a white(ish) one unless you can be bothered to cycle through the options every single time. This gets wearing, and from an app that can remember every weird typo you've ever mashed, it's unnecessarily restrictive. In fairness, I raised this with SwiftKey and they were very responsive, but it's indicative of tech culture that it hadn't come up at their company before now.
Yo @swiftkey it's nice how I can type the word for an emoji & it pops up, but could you make it so it's not ALWAYS the male version? Randomise or let us choose or offer both?? It's not cool to reinforce that male = default pic.twitter.com/aePmETmxzh
— Holly Brockwell (at MWC) (@holly) February 21, 2018
Hi Holly, thank you for bringing this to our attention. This has sparked a discussion on how to offer a better emoji prediction experience, and we're looking into it. Thanks again!
— SwiftKey (@SwiftKey) February 21, 2018
In this environment, you can see how something so simple as being able to select your actual skin colour, hair colour and style can become important to feeling included. That said, Samsung's innovation is not without its flaws. One of the first things you have to do to make your AR Emoji — and indeed even to register your interest in the S9 — is select your gender from a binary choice of male or female. No alternate options, no opt-out.
I asked Samsung about this at the launch and they couldn't give a definite answer as to why it's required, but anecdotally I saw that once you select a gender, the 'appropriate' hair and clothing choices come up. This is not cool, and reinforces boring stereotypes. Samsung should ditch the gender bit entirely and just let people pick from the whole selection.
The gender bit is odd, because Samsung does genuinely seem to get the point of an avatar. The AR Emojis marketing page says "you can make your emoji look a lot like you—or who you want to be" and that it "shows off your inner you." This is the beauty of the avatar: yes, it can be essentially a digital version of your real face if you want, but it can also be your alter-ego: the Sasha Fierce to your Beyoncé, the Courtney Act to your Shane Jenek. This can be crucially important for people whose physical self can't represent their inner world for whatever reason — they were assigned a different gender at birth, they have to look conservative for work or school, they live in an intolerant place, or just because it's not yet possible to become a robot (sadly).
One day, when we all live in VR and our physical bodies are just housing for our hardware, we can all be the person/animal/massive terrifying dinosaur we feel inside. But until then, emojis that can be customised to better represent you are a step in the right direction.
Gizmodo UK is in Barcelona at MWC! Keep up with all the latest announcements from the show floor right here.