Google’s smart keyboard app Gboard adds phrase suggestions, a draw-an-emoji feature & more

Google this morning is rolling out a notable update for its smart keyboard app, Gboard, which introduces a number of new features aimed at helping you communicate more quickly, while typing less. In the latest release, Google is improving typing quality via machine intelligence, which is an under-the-hood update that will impact its ability to make suggestions and correct mistakes. To end users, these changes will be visible through a new feature that will suggest phrases, instead of just words.

The new app will also let you draw an emoji on the screen to add it to your conversation, as well as introduce updated Search cards.

The draw-an-emoji feature seems like it will be a more fun than it is practical, but it’s still an interesting experiment in trying to make the texting experience easier. Now, you’ll be able to tap on the emoji handwriting button to draw an emoji right on your screen, says Google. Gboard will then automatically recognize this drawing and show results that match the emoji in question. How well this will work for emojis outside the simpler ones, like a happy or sad face, remains to be seen.

But in the example Google shows today, a crude drawing of a face with pointed ears returns emoji search results for things like cat faces, the devil, the dancing girls (wearing bunny ears), and others. What’s also interesting is that the search results continually refresh as you draw more parts to the emoji – it doesn’t wait for a finished masterpiece to return options. And even with the first scribble of a circle, the screen is already making suggestions of emojis with a basic, round shape.

This isn’t Google’s first attempt at simplifying emoji usage in Gboard. The app already supports an emoji search feature that lets you type in the emoji’s name or expression/sentiment you need (e.g. “smiling”), instead of having to browse to find the right one.

And Google has for a long time experimented with drawing on the screen as an alternative to typing. Even back in 2010, the company was monkeying around with “Gesture Search” in Android, which let you draw letters on your phone’s screen to surface things like contacts, bookmarks, apps, and music.

Meanwhile, Google’s ability to recognize drawings has more recently been improved. In April, it launched AutoDraw which turns your squiggles and doodles into more professional drawings of shapes and other objects.

Though draw-an-emoji may be fun to try and occasionally use, Gboard’s phrase suggestion feature will likely be more useful day-to-day.

Now, in addition to making word suggestions as you type as most modern keyboards do, Gboard will suggest phrases. For example, if you type “looking forward,” Gboard will suggest “to seeing” or “to it” as you type. Gboard is able to make these smart suggestions through its use of machine intelligence – it knows what words occur in a language, and which words are likely to follow other words, so it can guess what you’ll say next.

This will be available starting today in English, but Google says other languages will be supported soon.

Searching in Gboard is also being improved with this update, as the app will now offer multiple results for you to browse through when running searches from the keyboard. The search cards will be more interactive, too. When you click on a card, you click through to go to Maps, call a business, or watch a YouTube video.

The updated app also now supports over 200 languages, with suggestions and gesture typing rolling out to Azerbaijani (Iran), Dhivehi, French (Belgium), Hawaiian, Maori, and Samoan; while simpler keyboards will be available in Dzongkha, Ewe, Navajo, Tsonga, and K’iche’.

The changes are arriving first on Android, in the new app updated today.