Stewart Cook  /  AFP
Pity the lost driver! Laurence Tureaud, who played the tough-talking Mr. T in the former television series The A-Team, has leant his voice to a car navigation system.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/28/2005 2:33:48 PM ET 2005-12-28T19:33:48

Centuries ago, navigators looked to the stars to work out their location on Earth and plot their courses. Today, stars are again set to guide lost travelers to their destinations, but they won’t be the celestial bodies seen in the heavens each night.

Instead, think Mr. T, Burt Reynolds and Dennis Hopper — they’ve all signed up to deliver celebrity voice content for turn-by-turn driving directions in the Navtones car navigation system produced by Los Angeles-based Wanderlust Media and digital map and location content provider Tele Atlas.

If you already have an expensive navigation system in your car, you’re already familiar with the generic woman’s voice telling you to turn left at the next light. The idea behind Wanderlust’s new offering is to give drivers something a little different, explains CEO Will Andre. Mr. T not only guides, he also threatens: “Pay attention to what I’m saying,” he bawls. “Mr. T gonna get you there in one piece … you gonna be there safely, or else!”

“The idea behind this came when we heard anecdotally that a lot of people were frustrated with the voices on their navigation systems and talked back to them,” Andre said. “That led to some research and we found that a lot of users referred to their navigation systems by a specific name, like Jane, so we decided to capitalize on that relationship.”

Andre says the celebrity navigation idea is part of the “the personalization of consumer electronics,” and he hopes the venture will be as popular as the craze for personalized ring tones for cell phones.

Directions from celebrities like Mr. T will be available for download on to stand-alone, portable navigation devices by the end of the year, while celebrity voices will be available in embedded car navigation devices in the first quarter of 2006, according to Andre.

A single celebrity voice will cost about $10 to download online, while unique character-themed voices — think of a generic surfer dude, or a cowboy — will cost about $5 each, Andre said. More celebrity voices are planned for later this year he notes, although he declined to disclose any specific names.

Wanderlust is also exploring other celebrity navigation projects, such as the development of culturally-relevant voices in other languages and the use of Dennis Hopper’s voice in Dutch navigation systems firm TomTom’s “TomTom Rider,” a GPS navigation system for motorbike riders. “We thought an Easy Rider voice would be of interest,” he said. In August, TomTom launched a navigation system for European drivers using the voice of Monty Python star John Cleese.

Whether a portable unit or built into an automobile’s dashboard, car navigation systems that use radio signals from global positioning satellites to pinpoint an exact location, or plot travel directions are becoming popular items for drivers who loathe losing their way. They come as standard in high-end cars from manufacturers like BMW, or Mercedes, and can be bought as optional extras in many other makes of car sold in the United States.

But GPS car navigation has not seen the same popularity in the United States as it has in Europe or in Japan, where cities and towns are rarely laid out in an uncomplicated grid pattern as they are the United States, notes Will Strauss, a principal analyst with Forward Concepts, an electronics market research firm in Tempe, Az.

Strauss notes that to date the strongest demand for in-car GPS systems has come from rental car companies and large trucking fleets, for whom getting lost costs time and money.

“These systems are growing in popularity in the United States as they start to look less like a straightforward maps and people start to enjoy using them more,” said Strauss. “And the ability to find a restaurant or a hospital is appealing to some people too.”

Strauss says the number of GPS systems shipped for personal car owners is growing steadily, rising from 5.5 million units in 2004 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2005 and a projected 8.7 million in 2006. And Strauss expects the number to rise to 16.2 million by 2009.

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