May 27, 2010

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Who says what now?
Custom voices for your GPS navigator
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

You can choose who rides in your car with you, but once you buy a GPS, the choice of companions giving you directions is awfully limited. If you’re lucky there’s a man and a woman, and maybe a different man and woman speaking with British accents.

That’s just the built-in options, of course.

Hackers have been altering their GPS navigators since the early days. Many devices just run Windows CE, that old pocket PC operating system, with a custom interface laid over it. Depending on your GPS model, it could be as simple as recording or downloading a few new sound files and copying them over a USB cable. Still, not everyone’s a hacker.

Manufacturers are getting hip to the desire for different voices. Whether you want to record your own voice or get your favorite celebrity on there, you’re covered.

Garmin, TomTom and Nokia are the leaders here as far as manufacturer-supported customization goes. They each take slightly different approaches.

Check out Garmin Voice Studio if you have a compatible GPS from that company. It guides you through recording a bunch of words and phrases like “turn left,” “enter roundabout,” “hundred” — you get the idea. You use the basic editing tools to trim each word to exactly the right length and then have the software copy all the sound files to your device. Easy.

The software doesn’t work with the streetname-reading function of newer navigators because it doesn’t have you record individual phonemes, the basic sounds that make up language. Those are better left up to professional voice actors.

Nokia has free navigation software for its smartphones called Ovi Maps, and their Own Voice plugin lets you record, well, your own voice. Unlike Garmin’s desktop application, Nokia’s is installed right on the phone. Since every phone has a microphone, it’s a bit more intuitive. It’s early days for this app, though, and many users have reported problems downloading it and making it work smoothly.

Of course instead of using your own boring voice (that, yes, really sounds like that to other people), you could put novelty or celebrity sound files on there too. Garmin has a couple whimsical ones on its website — Squirrelly the Squirrel, a Yeti, Elfred the Elf — but if for some reason those don’t excite you, TomTom might be more up your alley.

I mean the Homer Simpson and Darth Vader alley here. When Darth Vader tells you to take the next exit, you take that exit, buddy.

Famous voices aren’t free — TomTom charges $12.95 for the Dark Lord of the Sith, and will offer C-3PO, Yoda and Han Solo later this summer. Slightly cheaper celebrities are available from NavTones.com: Mr. T, Dennis Hopper, Kim Cattrall and Burt Reynolds will each set you back $9.95, while Gary Busey is in the bargain bin for $4.95. David Hasselhoff will grace either your TomTom or Garmin for $6.95, but if you purchase his voice, you really have to get the KITT Garmin voice for $9.95 as well.

Then again, might want to track down Mio’s Knight Rider GPS with not only KITT’s voice, but chasing red LEDs on the sides. It’s two years old, but how cool is that?

Certainly cooler than pigtones.com, where $9.97 gets you one of dozens of porcine-themed parody voices. “Souey” instead of Family Guy’s Stewie! “Pagoda” (not “Pigoda” which would at least be consistent) instead of Yoda! Even Jesus! Yeah, commit sacrilege in a moving vehicle. Smart...