Is it Me, or Is Your Robot Coming On To Me?
I proposed a variation of this question on Twitter and received merely an “it’s just you…” response. So, I decided to take this question to a wider format—everyone else.
Ever since I was a wee lass, I could always distinguish the minutest of subtleties in voices. I could tell when people were holding back (or faking) accents. If a cartoon character’s voice actor was changed, even if it was almost identical, I could tell the difference. For some reason I found it interesting to recognize the complexities of voice and how each one affects the listener. For me, it was only natural that I extended this interest into the world of technology and computer voices.
The first devices that I started noticing a lot of vocal changes on were answering machines. Back when we has an old GE clunky answering machines, the vocal intonations of the machine always reminded me of a hesitant male robut with a stick up its ass (‘robut’ spelling intentional). At that time, it was pretty novel that anything besides a human spoke a word so it was passable. And let’s face it; the engineers who put it all together were not exactly concerned with the ‘marketability’ of how an answering machine sounded—it talked! And that was good enough for everyone.
Fast forward to the mid-to late 90s and a not so odd thing happened. Devices started having female voices. I realized it was only a matter of time, considering the male-dominated world of tech’s penchant to give a machine or gadget a female persona. Also, perhaps they found out a female voice sounds more inviting or believable. It is probably also less scary. Considering I wasn’t in that focus group I’ll place my assumptions aside. However, it still wasn’t quite perfected. There still wasn’t much variation of tone so it still sounded like a ‘robut’, however a bit less unsure of the words and with more fluidity. It wasn’t until maybe the early 2000s where more mainstream items like cordless phones began announcing the caller’s identity. I was thrilled until I heard this:
(The last time I checked, my name wasn’t pronounced like a level off of StarFox 64….)
Dejected, I looked elsewhere. As with consumer devices the same patterns of injecting female voices into transportation based tech were more than apparent. Trains, cars, elevators, escalators, planes; just about everywhere is a robotic female voice. Is this all due to Star Trek and the use of Majel Barrett and the voice of the control system? Has this happened because HAL 9000 proved that male robotic voices usually spelled trouble?
Regardless, there are many actual reasons why computerized objects have female voices. One of them being that a higher pitched female voice can be heard when the surrounding environment is generally loud. That’s all good and all but I’ve recognized that these voices start sounding a little too inviting. I can recall many a times on the DC Metro, wearily waiting for a Green line train when a sexified “Doors Opening…” chimed out from the speakers. Was I walking into a train car or an after-hours lounge?
The pattern seems to keep repeating in just about everything. Take GPS systems for example. Using a TomTom GPS you could install customized voices. So instead of hearing a good ole reliable stick in the mud, you can have the voice of Jessica Rabbit cooing at you, “Hey Hot Stuff…make a left turn in 5 miles…you’re almost there, Honey”. Oh yeah? I admit Jessica Rabbits isn’t exactly an official TomTom GPS voice, but it’s fairly easy to offer.
So at this point one must ask: Is this really a problem? Is it better to have more sensual sounding vocals coming out of your electronics, than to be friend zoned by the likes of Siri or AVA (Android Voice Actions)? Have you heard any robot voices that seemed a bit too friendly?