This is a love story.
A story about a Dutchman named Maarten, and his love for “Boxy.”
“Boxy” is the name he gave the voice that came out of the GPS in his Toyota Prius. A voice that has shown him the way since he was thirteen years old. It sounded like it came out of a box.
Maarten van Gestel works as a journalist for “Trouw,” a newspaper in the Netherlands.
“Boxy makes me happy,” says Maarten when he’s interviewed on Dutch radio. “It’s not just the voice itself, but it’s also the car that has so many wonderful memories. My parents bought it when I was a teenager, and I remember driving to Italy for our summer vacations. I own the car now, and I still use it to drive to my vacation destination with my girlfriend.”
As soon as we’ve reached Belgium, the voice tells us “You have crossed the border,” and we immediately feel away from home. Gradually, this voice has become almost like a family member. Because Boxy is quite old, she’s not so clever anymore. Her outdated software doesn’t recognize new roads, so we end up having to turn around quite often, but that’s okay.”
Van Gestel describes Boxy’s voice as “warm and yet somewhat detached.” He tells the interviewer: “She sounds a bit posh, like an older KLM stewardess offering you a cup of coffee before the flight takes off.”
If Maarten had a genie in a bottle and he’d be granted one wish, it would be to meet Boxy in person. But without a genie, he decided to write to Toyota and track down the identity of the woman who had always told him where to go.
“I really didn’t expect to get an answer from them, but I told Toyota how much the Prius meant to me and how much I love this car,” says Maarten. “I think that might have helped.”
Eventually, Maarten got to meet Boxy in the flesh! He picks up the story:
“She was older than I thought she would be. In my mind she sounded like forty-ish, but in reality she is sixty-nine years old. [in an earlier version of this article I mistakenly wrote she was 96] A very graceful woman. Her name is Dita Jansen, and she’s a professional voice over.”
Dita used to be program director at a Dutch television station. Part of her job was narrating documentaries and features. People liked her clear and warm voice so much that they asked her to voice other projects. In 1993 she resigned from her job to become a full-time voice talent. She’s been recording ever since in French, German, English, and Dutch, with an average of twenty-five jobs a month. One of her specialties is recording telephone systems in four languages, something only very few VO’s can pull off.
Dita was delighted to meet a fan. When she recorded the navigation system for Toyota, she was forty-five, and her voice hasn’t changed much. She still records new voice prompts because the system needs regular updating. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
By the way, she hates that more and more navigation systems use computer-generated voices. She told Dutch radio:
“They don’t have any personality and they constantly emphasize the wrong syllables. Some people may get used to it, but I think it’s a great loss.”
Maarten van Gestel agrees with Dita Jansen:
“Computer-generated voices don’t feel like a real person. Technology may evolve, but they will never sound as real as a human being. Companies like Tom Tom and Google Maps are convinced they can replace the human voice, but I disagree.”
He continues: “That had me wondering. Why is Toyota still using a real person to update their system? Why not use an artificial voice? I put that question to Toyota, and their answer honestly surprised me.
They told me some customers were not at all happy with these fake voices, so they decided to go back to the real thing, which means Boxy will return to all the new models!”
I think that’s good news for Dita Jansen, and for all voice actors who feel they’ll soon be replaced by artificial voices.
PS A big thank you to the Trouw Newspaper, and the radio show “Met het Oog op Morgen” in which both Maarten van Gestel en Dita Jansen were interviewed by Coen Verbraak. Fun detail: I started my career in radio together with Coen, making youth radio programs for Dutch National Radio. I once voiced one of his radio documentaries.