US Treasury’s Mnuchin Extends Debt Limit Measure for Two Months

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday said he would extend for two more months one of the extraordinary cash management measures that the Treasury is using to stave off a debt-limit default.

Mnuchin said in a letter to House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan that he would continue to withhold investments from the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, until Sept. 29.

The Treasury’s previous “debt issuance suspension period” for the federal employee pension fund was due to expire on Friday.

Mnuchin had to take the step because Congress has not passed an extension or increase in the federal debt limit, and the Treasury needs to withhold funds from the pension fund in order to preserve its borrowing capacity. It has taken several similar measures since the last extension of the debt limit expired in March at just under $20 trillion.

Mnuchin urged lawmakers this week to act on the borrowing limit before their August recess, but his request fell on deaf ears. The House of Representatives is on recess until Sept. 5.

Mnuchin and fiscal watchdog groups have estimated that the Treasury will fully exhaust its remaining borrowing capacity in October, raising the risk that the United States cannot meet all of its payment obligations with incoming tax revenue.

The Treasury is required by law to make the pension fund whole, including interest, when the debt limit is increased.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday, Mnuchin said that Congress’ budgeting process, including the role the debt limit plays, “needs to be looked at.”

“I’m all for [that] there should be very strong controls of spending money. But once we’ve agreed to spend the money, we should make sure that the government can pay for it,” Mnuchin said.


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IMF Says Dollar Overvalued, but Euro, Yen in Line With Fundamentals

The International Monetary Fund on Friday said that the U.S. dollar was overvalued by 10 percent to 20 percent, based on U.S. near-term economic fundamentals, while it viewed valuations of the euro, Japan’s yen and China’s yuan as broadly in line with fundamentals.

The IMF’s External Sector Report, an annual assessment of currencies and external surpluses and deficits of major economies, showed that external current account deficits were becoming more concentrated in certain advanced economies such as the United States and Britain, while surpluses remained persistent in China and Germany.

While the report assessed the euro’s valuation as appropriate for the eurozone as a whole, it said the euro’s real effective exchange rate was 10 percent to 20 percent too low for Germany’s fundamentals, given its high current account surplus.

Britain’s pound, meanwhile, was assessed as up to 15 percent overvalued compared with fundamentals, which include a high level of uncertainty over Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the European Union.

The fund said the dollar’s appreciation in recent years was based on its relatively stronger growth outlook, interest rate hikes versus looser monetary policy in the eurozone and Japan, as well as expectations for fiscal stimulus from President Donald Trump’s administration.

But so far this year, the dollar index, the broad measure of its value against other major currencies, is down more than 8 percent and is off to the worst start to a year since 2002.

The IMF recommended that U.S. authorities take steps to shrink a current account deficit that remains too large, by reducing its federal budget deficit and passing structural reforms to increase the savings rate and improve the economy’s productivity.

“It’s important to address imbalances, because if they’re not dealt with appropriately and through the right policies, we could have a backlash in the form of protectionism,” IMF Research Division Chief Luis Cubeddu told a news conference.

No automatic fix

Cubeddu said that the persistence of current account surpluses in export countries such as China and the growth of deficits in debtor countries such as the United States suggested that the problem would not clear up automatically.

“That is, prices, savings and investment decisions don’t seem to be adjusting fast enough to correct imbalances. This partly reflects rigid currency arrangements, but also certain structural features, like inadequate safety nets, barriers to investment, which leads to undesirable levels of savings and investment,” he said.

The report said that while China’s yuan was broadly in line with its fundamentals, IMF models showed wide divergences with desired policies, from a 10 percent overvaluation to a 10 percent undervaluation due to uncertainties over Beijing’s policy outlook.

The U.S. Treasury in April refrained from declaring China a currency manipulator despite Trump’s campaign promises to do so, citing Beijing’s interventions last year to prop up the yuan’s value in the face of capital outflows. But it kept China, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and Switzerland on a monitoring list for large external surpluses.

The IMF said China’s current account surplus was growing again after declining in 2015 and 2016 and needed to be reduced.

This should be achieved by rebalancing the economy away from investment and credit growth toward more consumption, with a stronger safety net, reforms to state-owned enterprises and opening Chinese markets to foreign competition.

The report also showed that the IMF considers Mexico’s peso and South Korea’s won both to be undervalued by 5 percent to 15 percent compared with their fundamentals. The fund said it expected Mexico’s undervaluation to reverse as risks of protectionist U.S. policies dissipated, but that South Korea needed to stimulate domestic demand to reduce a large current account surplus.


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Tesla Stock Climbs as Musk Prepares to Hand Over First Model 3 Cars

Shares of Tesla rose nearly 1 percent on Friday ahead of a handover to customers of its first Model 3 sedans, the electric cars that Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is betting will propel his company into the mass market.

Tesla is counting on the Model 3 to help turn the cash-losing company into a profitable one, and its event later on Friday at its factory in Fremont, California, comes as the car maker’s stock trades down 12 percent from a record high set in June.

Fueled by expectations that Tesla will become a carbon-free energy and transportation heavyweight, Tesla’s stock remains up 58 percent year to date, but it is also a favorite among short sellers.

Designed for easy production

Shorts sellers have about $8.5 billion bet against Tesla, equivalent to about 20 percent of the company’s float, according to Astec Analytics.

The $35,000 Model 3 is designed for easy production, with output targeted to reach 20,000 per month by December. The Silicon Valley car company aims to quickly ramp up its factory to reach a production target of 500,000 cars per year in 2018.

Tesla’s last launch was the luxury Model X SUV in 2015, which had a number of production issues.

Investors eager for update

Tesla reports its second-quarter results on Wednesday, and investors are keen for an update on how quickly its output is expanding after deliveries for the first half of 2017 came in at the low end of the company’s own forecast.

“This evening’s event will keep investors focused on the Model 3 ramp, and less on the upcoming quarter,” Barclays analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a note to clients. Johnson has a an “underweight” rating on Tesla.

Skeptics believe Tesla’s growth targets are unrealistic and that it is at risk of being overtaken by General Motors, BMW and other deep-pocketed manufacturers that are ramping up their own electric-vehicle offerings.

The stock was up 0.86 percent at $337.33.


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Roomba Vacuum Maker iRobot Betting Big on ‘Smart’ Home

The Roomba robotic vacuum has been whizzing across floors for years, but its future may lie more in collecting data than dirt.

That data is of the spatial variety: the dimensions of a room as well as distances between sofas, tables, lamps and other home furnishings. To a tech industry eager to push “smart” homes controlled by a variety of Internet-enabled devices, that space is the next frontier.

Smart home lighting, thermostats and security cameras are already on the market, but Colin Angle, chief executive of Roomba maker iRobot Corp., says they are still dumb when it comes to understanding their physical environment. He thinks the mapping technology currently guiding top-end Roomba models could change that and is basing the company’s strategy on it.

“There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared,” said Angle.

That vision has its fans, from investors to the likes of Amazon.com, Apple and Alphabet, who are all pushing artificially intelligent voice assistants as smart home interfaces. According to financial research firm IHS Markit, the market for smart home devices was worth $9.8 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow 60 percent this year.

Map sharing

Angle told Reuters that iRobot, which made Roomba compatible with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant in March, could reach a deal to share its maps for free with customer consent to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years. Angle added the company could extract value from those agreements by connecting for free with as many companies as possible to make the device more useful in the home.

Amazon declined to comment, and Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

So far investors have cheered Angle’s plans, sending iRobot stock soaring to $102 in mid-June from $35 a year ago, giving it a market value of nearly $2.5 billion on 2016 revenue of $660 million.

But there are headwinds for iRobot’s approach, ranging from privacy concerns to a rising group of mostly cheaper competitors — such as the $300 Bissell SmartClean and the $270 Hoover Quest 600 — which are threatening to turn a once-futuristic product into a commoditized home appliance.

Low-cost Roomba rivals were the subject of a report by short-seller Ben Axler of Spruce Point Capital Management, which sent the stock down 20 percent to $84 at the end of June.

The company’s smart home vision has helped bring around some former critics. Willem Mesdag, managing partner of hedge fund Red Mountain Capital — who led an unsuccessful proxy fight against Angle last year and wound up selling his iRobot shares — is now largely supportive of the company’s direction.

“I think they have a tremendous first-mover advantage,” said Mesdag, who thinks iRobot would be a great acquisition for one of the Big Three. “The competition is focused on making cleaning products, not a mapping robot.”

Military beginnings

Founded in 1990, iRobot saw early success building bomb disposal robots for the U.S. Army before launching the world’s first “robovac” in 2002. The company sold off its military unit last year to focus on the consumer sector, and says the Roomba — which ranges in price from $375 to $899 — still has 88 percent of the U.S. robovac market.

All robovacs use short-range infrared or laser sensors to detect and avoid obstacles, but iRobot in 2015 added a camera, new sensors and software to its flagship 900-series Roomba that gave it the ability to build a map while keeping track of its own location within that map.

So-called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology right now enables Roomba, and other higher-end robovacs made by Dyson and other rivals, to do things like stop vacuuming, head back to its dock to recharge and then return to the same spot to finish the job.

Guy Hoffman, a robotics professor at Cornell University, said detailed spatial mapping technology would be a “major breakthrough” for the smart home.

Right now, smart home devices operate “like a tourist in New York who never leaves the subway,” said Hoffman. “There is some information about the city, but the tourist is missing a lot of context for what’s happening outside of the stations.”

With regularly updated maps, Hoffman said, sound systems could match home acoustics, air conditioners could schedule airflow by room, and smart lighting could adjust according to the position of windows and time of day.

Companies like Amazon, Google and Apple could also use the data to recommend home goods for customers to buy, said Hoffman.

Privacy concerns

One potential downside is that sharing data about users’ homes raises clear privacy issues, said Ben Rose, an analyst who covers iRobot for Battle Road Research. Customers could find it “sort of a scary thing,” he said.

Angle said iRobot would not be sharing data without its customers’ permission, but he expressed confidence most would give their consent in order to access the smart home functions.

Another Roomba risk is that cheaper cleaning products are what consumers really want. In May, The New York Times’ Sweethome blog dethroned the $375 Roomba 690 as its most-recommended robovac in favor of the $220 Eufy RoboVac 11, saying the connectivity and other advanced features of the former would not justify the greater cost for most users.

Short-seller Axler’s June report caused a stir mostly with its prediction that value-priced appliance maker SharkNinja Operating LLC could launch a robovac by year’s end. SharkNinja declined to comment.

One potential iRobot bulwark against these new competitors: a portfolio of 1,000 patents worldwide covering the very concept of a self-navigating household robot vacuum as well as basic technologies like object avoidance.

A handful of those patents are now being tested in a series of patent infringement lawsuits iRobot filed in April against Bissell, Stanley Black & Decker, Hoover Inc., Chinese outsourced manufacturers and other robovac makers. The litigation is the most significant in iRobot’s history.

A lawyer for Hoover declined to comment. Lawyers for Bissell and Stanley Black & Decker did not respond to requests for comment.

The patents are a “huge part of our competitive moat,” Angle said. “It is getting really hard not to step on our intellectual property.”


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New York Startups Shine Light on New Paths for World Cities

Snapping off a leaf of crisp baby lettuce, entrepreneur Andrew Shearer can demonstrate how colored lights in a hydroponic cabinet boost nutrients or alter the flavors and colors of plants that can be grown in a restaurant kitchen.

Strawberries, peppers and tomatoes are the next crops for his start-up Farmshelf, which aims to cut food miles and waste by selling the lighting units to grow vegetables for commercial use, home kitchens and even mobile vans.

“Going the next step, changing the way the food supply system can work for the highly perishable items that often end up in the landfill,” said Shearer, 27, at the New Lab workspace at Brooklyn Navy Yard (BNYDC).

Farmshelf is one of 95 companies at New Lab in the former shipyard, home to firms such as Honeybee Robotics, which makes arms for Mars rovers and mouse-sized robots, and Spacial, where one of its drone blimps hangs from the ceiling.

Cities around the world are looking to BNYDC for inspiration as they struggle to replace declining industrial jobs with well-paid alternatives while regenerating areas left vacant and neglected by dying industries.

Once a thriving center on New York City’s East River employing 70,000 people, Brooklyn’s waterfront fell into dereliction as the shipbuilding business shut down, said David Ehrenberg, BNYDC chief executive.

Packs of feral dogs would chase prospective tenants away as efforts at a revamp got underway, he said.

Fifteen years later, the yard is home to 330 companies and employs 7,000 people in what has become a hip neighborhood dotted with housing projects and chic apartment buildings.

BNYDC partners with struggling local schools to get children interested in fields such as robotics and internships or jobs with one of the cutting-edge companies, Ehrenberg said.

“If things work out well, other cities can end up where we’ve ended up, he said.

Alongside entrepreneurs developing nanotechnology or designing kinetic furniture, other companies at BNYDC are creating hundreds of blue-collar jobs, which urban experts say is key to making communities economically resilient.

At Steiner Studios, where the hit HBO series “Girls” was filmed, more than half the employees work in jobs such as on-set carpenters or electricians.

Crye Protection employs more than 200 people, many of whom sew specialized camouflage gear and bendable body armor.

To be resilient, “any city can’t be over reliant on a single industry, whether that be Rotterdam and the port, New Orleans and petrochemicals, New York and finance,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities program.

The Rockefeller Foundation-backed $164 million program aims to help urban areas protect themselves from stresses and shocks.

“There’ no one magic bullet,” Berkowitz said.

For cities such as Glasgow in Scotland, once the world’s biggest shipbuilder, a challenge is making growth inclusive as it looks to fill the space left vacant by industry and find new ways to use existing manufacturing skills.

“We’re looking at the diversification of our economy. We’re too dependant on bashing metal. But those same engineering skills and links to universities are ones we can use again,” said Duncan Booker, chief resilience officer for Glasgow. “We’re not going to get that mass employment again, but we can get lots of lots of clusters of smaller companies and some of the larger manufacturing companies and utilities to take on people,” he said.

Repurposing a one million-square foot (305,000 square meters) of space for entrepreneurs seeking solutions to flooding and climate change is an option being considered in New Orleans as the city tries to shift away from dependence on the petrochemical industry.

“For us, it’s also about transitioning our people from the oil economy to the blue and green economy of the future,” said Jeff Hebert, chief resilience officer and deputy mayor of New Orleans, using terms used to describe sustainable ocean and environmental practices.

“The most important part for us is to make sure we are training the people of the city, not just kids … but people who are currently unemployed or underemployed so they can take advantage of innovations in the new economy,” he said.

Although cities with fewer resources may struggle to replicate the success of Brooklyn, diversifying economies and nurturing innovation can pay off, said experts.

“You can’t pick the winner,” said Ehrenberg. “You need to create the basic environment and the basic infrastructure and then let the market sort out who had the best idea, and then be ready to capture those jobs when they’re finally created.”


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Government, Industry Officials Call for Global Culture of Chemical Security

The east side of Houston is dotted with what look like skyscrapers from a distance, but are actually chemical plants, key parts of the Gulf Coast city’s economy.

“Houston, here in Texas, is in many ways the center of the petrochemical industry universe in the United States, so [there are] a very large number of chemical facilities, oil refineries,” said Dave Wolf, acting deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.   

Houston was the site of the 2017 Chemical Sector Security Summit, a three-day event ending Friday. Co-sponsored by DHS and the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council, composed of chemical industry trade associations, the summit is an event for sharing best practices related to securing chemical sites.

“We see terrorists globally continuing to seek out and actually use chemicals of this sort. … They are using these in improvised explosive devices, among other things. They are using them in dispersion devices for toxic inhalation,” Wolf said.

He pointed to examples such as the terrorist attack at the Brussels airport and metro station in 2016 and the 2015 attack in Lyon, France, where a terrorist drove into a chemical plant and caused an explosion.

Staying a step ahead

“Our challenge is always [to] be one step ahead, understanding what technology is coming, what’s here,” and then “to mitigate any of those threats or risks,” said Gary Scheibe, security manager at Shell Deer Park refinery in Deer Park, Texas.

Wolf said it is not just chemical plants that could be targets for terrorists.

“We are talking about fisheries, wineries, breweries, semiconductor fabrication sites, food-processing plants” and more, he said.

In 2007, the federal government established security regulations, known as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, that apply to chemical plants, electricity generation stations, refineries and other high-risk facilities, and it works with such facilities to develop site security plans.

Security experts said building a global culture of chemical security is key to keeping chemicals out of the hands of bad actors.

“No state can afford to ignore chemical security. States who have done so often find that they regret that decision later,” said Peter Newport, director of security with the International Chemical Trade Association.

Traditionally, much of the chemicals have been produced in developed regions such as the U.S. and Europe, but developing nations such as China and India are stepping up production, said Krzysztof Paturej, president of the board of the International Centre for Chemical Safety and Security in Warsaw. He said Iran is a country where more production is also expected.

Paturej said it makes good economic as well as security sense for chemical producers to focus on having high security standards.

“If you want to go global, you have to apply the best standards, and the best standards are in developed countries and especially [the] United States,” said Paturej.

Regardless of the country, security experts said chemical facilities hold symbolic and economic significance, so they become high-value targets for terrorists.


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Researchers: Artificial Intelligence Can Help Fight Deforestation in Congo

A new technique using artificial intelligence to predict where deforestation is most likely to occur could help the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) preserve its shrinking rainforest and cut carbon emissions, researchers have said.

Congo’s rainforest, the world’s second-largest after the Amazon, is under pressure from farms, mines, logging and infrastructure development, scientists say.

Protecting forests is widely seen as one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce the emissions driving global warming.

But conservation efforts in DRC have suffered from a lack of precise data on which areas of the country’s vast territory are most at risk of losing their pristine vegetation, said Thomas Maschler, a researcher at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

“We don’t have fine-grain information on what is actually happening on the ground,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To address the problem Maschler and other scientists at the Washington-based WRI used a computer algorithm based on machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence.

The computer was fed inputs, including satellite derived data, detailing how the landscape in a number of regions, accounting for almost a fifth of the country, had changed between 2000 and 2014.

The program was asked to use the information to analyze links between deforestation and the factors driving it, such as proximity to roads or settlements, and to produce a detailed map forecasting future losses.

Overall the application predicted that woods covering an area roughly the size of Luxembourg would be cut down by 2025 — releasing 205 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

The study improved on earlier predictions that could only forecast average deforestation levels in DRC over large swathes of land, said Maschler.

“Now, we can say: ‘actually the corridor along the road between these two villages is at risk’,” Maschler said by phone late on Thursday.

The analysis will allow conservation groups to better decide where to focus their efforts and help the government shape its land use and climate change policy, said scientist Elizabeth Goldman who co-authored the research.

The DRC has pledged to restore 3 million hectares (11,583 square miles) of forest to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement, she said.

But Goldman said the benefits of doing that would be outweighed by more than six times by simply cutting predicted forest losses by 10 percent.


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YouTube-inspired New Toys Aim to Wow Today’s Digitally Savvy Kids

For some youngsters, “unboxing” YouTube videos are all the rage. They involve a pair of hands – some small, some big with lacquered nails or others with hairy knuckles — unwrapping and playing with new toys.

The concept looks and feels mundane, but some of these videos have clocked hundreds of millions of views.

Now this YouTube sensation is influencing the toy industry.

‘Blind bag’ items

Toymakers are creating “blind bag” items, small inexpensive toys packaged in opaque plastic bags. Kids can’t see what they’re getting until the package is opened.

An antidote to digital childhoods, where every song or video is a click away? Maybe.

“Blind bags right now are huge. Kids love opening them, love the surprise factor,” Kelly Foley, marketing manager at Wicked Cool Toys, said.

These blind bag items as well as blind bag miniature collectible sets were on display in New York City recently, at the “Sweet Suite” toy event hosted by The Toy Insider, an online toy review guide.

Foley was showing off the “Little Sprouts” collection from Cabbage Patch Kids. The miniature figurines (more than 120 in all) come in “blind” cabbages, and are meant to be collected.

“They’re small, they’re able to be purchased with allowance money or money that kids earn, pocket change,” Jackie Breyer, editor-in-chief at The Toy Insider, said. A Little Sprouts blind cabbage retails for $2.99.

Influence on toy culture

YouTube’s influence on the toy culture can also be seen in another hot toy – the fidget spinner craze.

“They’re seeing their peers do really cool tricks and also they’re collecting,” Breyer said. “They want a full collection of these, they don’t just want one.”

Besides paying attention to YouTube, toymakers are moving quickly to speak the language of today’s digital natives with toys like the Elmoji, a robot that teaches children coding basics using emojis. It is made by Sesame Street and WowWee.

“It’s a visual language that kids get intuitively, and we want to have them solve problems using emojis because they’re comfortable with them,” Natalie Wight, art director at WowWee, said.

The Lego Boost teaches basic coding principles to kids as young as 7.

But it’s not all work and no play.

“You can build a robot and make him do things like turn and hit a target,” Amanda Madore, senior brand relations manager at LEGO, said. “Or pull his finger and make him pass gas, which kids love.”

Now that might get some views on YouTube.

After all, tech trends may come and go, but kids will still be kids.


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Optimizing Efficiency of Hybrid Cars

Trying to curb increasingly serious air pollution in their cities, authorities in France, followed this week by those in Britain, announced they will ban the sale of new gas and diesel-powered cars by 2040. This may speed up sales of hybrid electric vehicles. In the meantime, engineers are working hard to make such cars more attractive. Researchers at the University of California say their mileage could be improved with smarter onboard computers. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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LOL to Heart Eyes: New Emojis Must Pass Muster

Cheery Hi-5, a snobbish Poop and a conflicted Meh have starring roles in the animated The Emoji Movie, which imagines a world inside cellphones where emojis rebel against portraying just one emotion all their lives.

Yet the dozen or so people who select and release the tiny, ubiquitous characters globally are far removed from the glitz of Hollywood, where the Sony Pictures movie, which begins its global rollout Friday, was developed.

The humans who toil in obscurity to shape and approve new emojis are part of the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley-based group of computer and software corporations and individual volunteers with backgrounds in technology, encoding and linguistics.

2,600-plus emojis

From smiley faces to thumbs up, there are now more than 2,600 emojis worldwide and, according to a July Facebook report, more than 60 million a day are sent on the No. 1 social media network alone.

The consortium approves about 50-100 new emojis every year, not counting the different skin tones for people emoji, after a rigorous application and review process, said Mark Davis, president and co-founder of the group.

The latest batch, released in June and reaching phones and other devices in coming months, include a star-struck emoji, an exploding head, a group of wizards, mermaids and a woman wearing a hijab.

​Submissions from everywhere

“We get submissions from all over the world,” Davis said in an interview. “The hijab emoji came from a Saudi Arabian young woman who is living in Germany who made a very compelling proposal. I’m looking forward to the exploding head — I think that’s going to be very popular.

“People need to make a case as to why they think their emoji is going to be frequently used, how it breaks new ground, how it is different from other emojis that have already been encoded.”

Logos, brands and emojis tied to specific companies are not accepted. “We also don’t accept specific people. We did encode a cowboy but we wouldn’t encode John Wayne,” Davis said.

Some concepts just do not translate as emoji.

LOL emoji most popular

“Anything that needs a lot of detail to explain or understand is trouble. It’s also hard to make an emoji for something abstract — like good governance, or a responsible president,” Davis said.

Davis said there are 2,666 emojis worldwide. The LOL emoji with tears of laughter is the most popular, according to a July Facebook survey of its 2 billion monthly users, followed by the heart eyes emoji. Italians and Spaniards favor the kissing emoji.

The consortium played no part in the making of The Emoji Movie, Davis said, because all of its work is open-source, available to all, and no permission was needed.

Nevertheless, he never imagined that the computer-generated punctuation marks that originated in Japan in the 1980s would become Hollywood stars.

“That’s something that never really crossed our minds,” Davis said.

 


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