Smiley face alert: A new exhibit at the Museum of in Modern Art traces the history of the emoji, a sign of just how important these symbols have become in popular culture, and everyday life. NY1's Roger Clark filed the following report.

Meeting for a drink. Feeling a bit sleepy. Looking for a bathoom. Why spell it out when you can use an emoji?

It all started with 176 pixelated picture symbols developed by a Japanese cell phone carrier, NTT Docomo, in 1999 as a way of communicating better with its customers.   

"They wanted to be able to send weather forecasts to those primitive phones, or weather forecasts, or horroscopes," said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA.

And they did. And you can see the earliest emoji, created by Shigetaka Kurita, in the main lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, which aquired the symbols from NTT Docomo. 

Antonelli says it was a no brainer for an institution that collects the art of our time.   

"There's not only people that think of how to maintain oil paintings. There are people who think of how to maintain code.We have big servers, we have big computers, we put the code in there, and we try to make sure it can be migrated to other platforms," she said.

The word emoji is a combination of the Japanese words for picture and character. The concept caught fire in 2011 when Apple put them on its iPhones and other mobile phone makers followed suit.

Emojis sure look different now than in 1999. That's why MoMA has what amounts to an emoji interpreter, which shows you what the originals looked like and how they appear to us now with advanced technology.  

"Because they are so heavily pixelated, we had to show them how they are today. And sometimes there's really a surprise. But it's beautiful," Antonelli said.

As far as collecting digital art and design, it's not as simple as as just clicking and downloading it.

"There's intellectual property issues, and you go back and forth with attorneys, and the code also needs to maintained," Antonelli said. "So it's involved. It's much harder than one thinks. But it's completely worthwhile." 

The best part about checking out these emoji is, it's free. Which is OK with me.

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