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Arts

The voice of GPS: If only we could humanize it more (An Automotive/Theatrical Fantasy)

Adam Crowe and Lauren Briggeman
I don't know how many of you have had trouble with the GPS voice, but I have, and it's become a cryptic companion whose word is mum. I feel dependent on it when I'm going to a new place and need navigational help. If I'm traveling alone, it's an especially essential tool. But I have to hear it.

In my new car, I can only get it to work on the first step of the directions I've entered. Then it clams up, and I must steal glimpses  of the screen to see where I am.

Fortunately, we took Susan's car on a trip to Dallas to see our son Theodore about a month ago, in what now seems like another world. Her vehicle has a larger, mounted screen on the dash and presumably reliable voice support.

But in leaving the city from our hosts' home, we got turn-by-turn vocal directions that took us through urban-sprawl hell. We must have entered an instruction to avoid highways. We faced the prospect of driving a thousand miles back to Indianapolis on two-lane roads, with occasional four-lane relief.

Obviously, we had to override the original itinerary, and in the process we thoroughly confused GPS. Supposing we had now stipulated a speedier way home that would give us plenty of freeway time, we were corrected several times in a row by the GPS voice: "Proceed to the route."

You know the voice, perhaps: sturdy, self-possessed, emotionally neutral — a program designed to represent the objectivity of the ever-changing map on the screen. But after several times of being corrected, I was muttering: "I'm on the damn route!" And I was sure that the neutral tone of Ms. GPS had changed. On each repetition, there was something a little sharper about it, an unmistakable timbre of reproach, it seemed to me.

It's true, I still appreciate the voice's pronunciation of "route" to rhyme with "flute." My spoken language was shaped by formative years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where "route" never rhymed with "out," as it does in the Midwest. In the pre-interstate era, the word was heard a lot from my driving parents, and always sounded like the start of "Root, root, root for the home team."  Besides, everyone knows the song "Route 66," written by a fellow Lancastrian, Bobby Troup. You don't get your kicks on ROUT 66, even in the Midwest.

But I digress. Shortly after returning home, my arts blog assigned me to cover "The Agitators"' at Phoenix Theatre and "The Cake" at Fonseca Theatre Company. The cast of both productions featured actors whose voices I've long admired. I don't like lists of favorites, but I will say that I've always relished the voices of Lauren Briggeman and Adam Crowe. Over the years in a number of roles, they are alike in my experience in displaying firm projection, good diction, and emotionally rich voices at the lower end of their gender ranges.

Neither early March production was the best I've ever seen these two actors in, but it didn't matter. The unwarranted "Proceed to the route" scolding still stung, so an idea jelled in my head. With the choice GPS offers of a male or female voice, why not have both? And why couldn't they be Crowe's or Briggeman's? They would be programmed of course to match what the GPS voice already gives me, like "In a quarter-mile, turn left at Lee Strasberg Parkway" (or whatever). But the added benefit would be an authoritative, low-register voice with a touch of human warmth, a gift for achieving instant rapport via the most straightforward, practical text — a rapport I already treasure in their onstage performances of more engaging words spoken in character.

Then, in addition to most of the time when my driving matches what GPS has
in mind for me, I would never hear "Proceed to the route" the same way again. It would be more supportive, dagnab it, without a hint of disdain. Or so I imagine it.

And if I deliberately chose to override it, in my mind's ear I could hear, right after I had ignored Lauren's or Adam's "Proceed to the route," something like "Oh, OK, I see what you're doing. That'll work. Safe travels!"

That's all I have to say on this odd subject in this difficult time of limited travel.

 Proceed to the route, everybody.



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