"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this."
February 17, 2008 1:39 PM   Subscribe

How difficult would it be to either build a GPS with a little bit of a personality, who is disappointed with you when you make wrong turns, or to mod existing GPS units to have a hint of a personality?

I've been thinking about this for a while and I'm convinced that lots of people, especially young urban hipsters, would pay an extra $100 to $200 if their GPS unit would express more disappointment or distress after wrong turns or other mild disasters. I already sort of imagine that ours does this when it says "recalculating" after a few wrong turns, even though I know it's not really, and I really think I would be delighted if my GPS unit would occasionally take me to task for having no discernable sense of direction. I am imagining something a little like the depressed Marvin the android in The Hitchhiker's Guide series, or HAL in 2001 (though obviously without the actual capability of taking over and killing everyone), or maybe even like GLaDOS in Portal. Or maybe different people would want different personalities (my preferences may be influenced by leftover Catholic guilt), the point is that the GPS unit would actually react in some way to the turns you made or the way you were driving.

In any case, the point is, how hard would it be to sort of mesh GPS technology with something like videogame technology where your different decisions cause varying reactions from a computer that could, in some sense, be thought of as a "personality"? Could it be done, how expensive would it be to do (and mass produce), would a GPS unit that did this necessarily be MUCH less portable than what's available now, and can you see any problems that would make such a device necessarily unpractical or unuseable? And would you need to develop a whole separate device altogether, or might it be possible to just develop a sort of personality microchip that could be inserted into different existing GPS units (Garmin, Tom Tom, etc)? And maybe also, if you currently have a regular GPS unit, would you pay more for a GPS with a little personality?

Thanks in advance!
posted by onlyconnect to Technology (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
How difficult would it be to either build a GPS with a little bit of a personality

About as hard as it would be to make any machine with a little bit of a personality. Having it beep and offer a boilerplate complaint when you miss a turn is not personality, it's an annoyance.
posted by pracowity at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2008

It would be trivial to detect the 'condition'--increment a counter with each direction you don't take, and base its anger on that. The hard part would be re-recording / resynthesizing the voices and all.

I may be atypical, but I already find my GPS irritating. Giving it "moods" would be like asking, "My teenage girls are very hyper. Should I give them energy drinks, pop rocks, and some speed?"

Granted, I have to admit that, after me disregarding its directions repeatedly, I would find it somewhat funny if it said "Finally!" or "Good job!" when I finally did what it wanted. But I'm not sure driving is the situation where you want someone cracking up laughing.
posted by fogster at 2:02 PM on February 17, 2008

who is disappointed with you when you make wrong turns

This s a terrible idea. People don't need anyone or anything becoming disappointed with them when they make a wrong turn. They don't need to a guilt trip when they're driving, so they get upset and emotional and make even worse decisions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:03 PM on February 17, 2008

I did hear that Eddie Izzard has lent his voice to TomTom. I just bought a Garmin nuvi for my bf at Christmas. If I had known at the time, I probably would have bought a TomTom despite the research I had done that led me to pick the Garmin. As it is, we are hoping someone figures out how to port it to the Garmin.
posted by cabingirl at 2:06 PM on February 17, 2008

The GPS on the last Avis rental I had seemed to be put out and annoyed when "she" said "recalculating route" after I'd miss a turn. I didn't like it at all. The TomTom I own just recalculates the route without the snide comment.

TomTom already sells voices. I think I would chuck the unit out the window if Mr. T was complaining about my not following his instructions.
posted by birdherder at 2:08 PM on February 17, 2008

I don't know what non-Garmin GPS units sound like, but I tend to take it personally when I divert from the GPS course, and it pauses and says "recalculating" in that you're-an-asshole voice. I get a little more irked when it tells me to make a u-turn at the next possible place. It doesn't need to sigh in order for me to hear it.
posted by chookibing at 2:10 PM on February 17, 2008

Just to follow up, I know that a different voice isn't the same as an AI kind of personality like you are suggesting. I think if it's done well, the new voice could have more inflection and interest than the standard flat one.
posted by cabingirl at 2:10 PM on February 17, 2008

I'm an urban hipster and I changed to the British-accented male speaker because the American female already seemed too disappointed in my wrong turns. If I wanted my mother in the car with me, I'd invite her along! But I do wish my GPS could be taught my top-secret shortcut routes so that it wouldn't keep telling me that I'm getting it wrong as I evade tolls and known traffic clogs. I also wish it would stop calling FDR Drive "FDR Doctor."
posted by xo at 2:16 PM on February 17, 2008

Nthing other people in this thread. I once used a friend's GPS on a roadtrip, and I swear that thing was pissed everytime we deviated from the route to pick someone up/make a rest stop/etc.
posted by fermezporte at 2:22 PM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: I confess I am surprised by the number of people who really hate this idea. It sounds like different voices may be about as much personality as people really want from a GPS unit. I feel like several people have told me that they seem to hear disappointment coming from their GPS when they make a wrong turn and have implied that they are amused by it, and this made me think there might be a niche for it, but the number of people showing up here to say they would hate it suggests otherwise (or that maybe it's rather a smaller niche than I thought).

(PS: I also use the british voice on the Garmin -- Daniel -- exactly because I think it does have a little more personality than the American voices.)
posted by onlyconnect at 2:26 PM on February 17, 2008

Nth+1ing everyone else: I swear the Garmin giant frustrated sign before it says "recalculating".

But if you do end up doing this, please be sure to include the phrase: "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they get me to take you down to the bridge."
posted by IvyMike at 2:35 PM on February 17, 2008

I might not necessarily want to buy a product with this, but like you I would like to know if this can be done, and how.

MAKE zine is full of people who would know how to do something like this.
posted by Brian James at 2:39 PM on February 17, 2008

There are a lot of reasons to go off the chosen path, by the way. One is that you made a wrong turn, but another is that the road the machine wants you to take is blocked off and you can't get back onto it no matter how much it bitches at you. You'd need a fairly smart device to be able to react appropriately to different situations.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:46 PM on February 17, 2008

I have seen some GPS devices that allow you to import a different set of standard voice prompts than the standard set of male, female, british accent, etc. I think there are even some that allow you to record your own voice for these prompts -- for a fee.
posted by onshi at 2:49 PM on February 17, 2008

A long time ago, back in the mid 90s, a couple of researchers wrote a book called "The Media Equation" - subtitled "How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places". It is still one of the best background books for topics like this - but you shoud bear in mind that it was allegedly used by Microsoft as justification to create the hated "Office Assistant". The motto: be careful what you wish for.
posted by rongorongo at 2:55 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Depending on how involved you wanted it, it could probably done at a basic level in a few weeks of time for an experienced game programmer. Obviously you can make the personality more expressive, and the amount of time involved will go up with that. But keep in mind you'll be making an investment in programming the normal GPS features, so you could add this on pretty easily. $4-5k would probably get it done. You could also hire a couple programmers to do this as well. One to reverse engineer the system, and one to do work on the 'personality' part.
posted by delmoi at 3:10 PM on February 17, 2008

There are already open-source firmware projects for the TomTom (and possibly for others, for all I know). I don't think it would be too hard to add the kind of thing you're talking about. It would get repetitive or annoying eventually, but then you would turn it off.

I was actually talking about this idea with a friend a few weeks ago — my version of the idea was that it would sulk ("Fine, if you don't want to follow my directions ... I'll just sit here on the dash, unloved ... brain the size of a planet, etc.")
posted by hattifattener at 3:26 PM on February 17, 2008

This has already been done. Can't tell you the name of the company, but on a consulting trip, I was at a company that had a prototype of this. I never followed up to find out what happened with the product, but considering it is quite a big company, one would have heard of it if it had been released. I saw this almost 2 years ago.
posted by markovich at 4:14 PM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: Except for cabingirl's different voices product, I haven't seen anything like this turn up via google, but maybe my fu is substandard. (FWIW, google has just shown me that I (and hattifattener) are not the only one who yearns for a pouty GPS device.)

So delmoi, you think that if I already had a GPS development company, adding this type of feature would probably only cost an extra $4-5K. And if I don't have such a company (which I don't), I could hire someone to reverse engineer the GPS technology and one to do the personality part, though presumably this would be in the range of tens of thousands of dollars or more, I suspect.

But the threat of developing something as bad as the dreaded Microsoft Office Assistant Paper Clip may be enough to scare me away from this idea forever!
posted by onlyconnect at 4:33 PM on February 17, 2008

I work in this industry.
The voice prompts and "personality" are a very small part of the software that runs a navigation system. So while the incremental cost of adding a cute personality to a PND might be relatively small, the cost of developing (or licensing) the underlying guts, is enormous. The low price of these devices belies the huge amount of development that goes into making one.
In short, there is a reason that these things are made by huge companies, and not by a couple of dudes in their garage.

I hate to shit all over your idea, but some of the answers above are rather... um... optomistic.
posted by kc8nod at 5:12 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

TomTom offers a [John Cleese voice](http://www.tomtom.com/plus/service.php?ID=5&BID=14), which is apparently quite full of personality.
posted by kindall at 5:45 PM on February 17, 2008

Oh man, Markdown? what was I thinking?

Here's the Cleese voice.
posted by kindall at 5:45 PM on February 17, 2008

The Nokia n810 has an onboard GPS and the GPS software it ships with stores its sounds in a standard audit format (ogg vorbis) and can likely be replaced.

Link to discussion here
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:04 PM on February 17, 2008

To everyone who hates this idea because they don't want to deal with an aggravated GPS personality when they get off the route: Instead of the voice/personality becoming increasingly angry and resentful, how about the option of it becoming increasingly gentle and solicitous?

[nonchalant] "Oh. That's OK. We can handle that."
[caring] "Oh, there there, dearie, don't you worry about a thing. I'll just fix the route for you."
[joyous] "Oh, what a creative direction you've taken! You just made my day!"
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:31 PM on February 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

A GLaDOS GPS... now that would rock. Great idea!
posted by tdischino at 7:38 PM on February 17, 2008

I have a TomTom 720 and it allows you to record your own voice prompts. I don't think a GPS with more personality is a bad thing, I just think you would have to give people options so they could choose what type of personality they would like.
posted by rmtravis at 8:21 PM on February 17, 2008

I think this is a great idea! Every tour my band takes, we end up playing out arguments between the driver and the GPS ( who we have dubbed "Fleitoff the Navigator"). I would love if she had a bit more personality of her own to make the arguments really interesting.
perhaps a text to speech hack could allow you to enter your own phrases?
posted by TheCoug at 8:44 PM on February 17, 2008

Don't anthropamorphize computers.

They hate that.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:08 PM on February 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

The GPS on the last Avis rental I had seemed to be put out and annoyed when "she" said "recalculating route" after I'd miss a turn.

I've also used the Avis GPS (actually I have one with me now), and I swear that if she has to "recalculate" more than once or twice, she gets really huffy and insistent about turns and exits.

Start of the trip: "In .5 miles, turn left onto [whatever]."
After a few wrong turns: "In .5 miles, turn left. In .2 miles, turn left. In 200ft, turn left. Turn left. TURN LEFT."
posted by Zarya at 10:37 PM on February 17, 2008

How about a GPS unit that notices you're ignoring it, takes offense, and shuts itself up?

It can't be that difficult to add a little personality. They programmed the video game "Gex" with conditional wisecracks starting back in '95. Whether you find that type of thing hilarious or annoying depends on personal preference.

please be sure to include the phrase: "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they get me to take you down to the bridge."

A GPS unit that sounds like a snide, bored Alan Rickman and struggles with the meaninglessness of its own existence?
posted by zennie at 7:44 AM on February 18, 2008

I don't know I kinda like this idea... especially if it just said quirky things. Like "whoops, just flew by that turn didn't we. Let's get another route." Or "ok, just kidding, I didn't want you to take that right. Try taking the next one, eh?" It may just be me and my sarcastic self who thinks this idea is hysterical, but I'm with you OP. However, while I like this idea, I gotta say that building your own would be hell, but maybe you could add a "funny" voice narration to some existing ones. Either way, funny concept, hard as hell to implement.
posted by CAnneDC at 8:14 AM on February 18, 2008

I think I would chuck the unit out the window if Mr. T was complaining about my not following his instructions.

I'd love to have Mr T pity my foolish driving.
posted by happyturtle at 12:36 PM on February 18, 2008

« Older Finding funding for a movie?   |   Nuts! I've got a squirrel! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.