It's a steamy afternoon at Butler Aviation, National Airport. Two quarters in the Coke machine and "Home on the Range" begins to tinkle in the background. It sounds like an organ grinder is trapped inside.
Machine: "Hi, I'm a talking vendor."
Could it be? It sounds just like Carleton the Doorman.
"What's the first thing you say to people when they approach you?"
Machine: "Make your selection please."
"Okay, since I'm not feeling tubby enough for a Tab, I'll have your drink du jour, your maison specialty, an ice cold can of Coke."
Machine: "Thank you for using the talking vendor."
Machine: "Come again."
"I said you're welcome."
"Kids are pretty intrigued by it," says Mary Miller, Butler's customer service representative. "The only thing bad about it is it plays that song all day long. I go home and start singing 'Home on the Range.' "
Reactions to the vending machine have ranged from "amusement to disgust," Miller says.
Dolores Sanchez, spokeswoman for Coca-Cola in Atlanta, says the talking machines were introduced last fall. Around the United States, there are 2,100 machines that speak English or Japanese and 1,000 that speak English or Spanish, according to Sanchez. But there are only four talking Coke machines in the Washington area, said another Coca-Cola official.
The voice is not a recording, Sanchez said, but is synthesized through a programmed computer microchip. The machines, developed by Sanyo Vending Machines in Japan, are programmed to speak several languages, including English, Japanese, Spanish and French. The older machines play "Home on the Range" or "Greensleeves." The newer ones are programmed to warble the company's theme song, "Coke Is It."
Sanchez says the idea is to personalize the vending machine transaction. Although many consumers have been talking to vending machines for years, especially when one fails to return enough change, this is the first opportunity for a machine to talk back.
And for now, the voice behind the vendor will be a man's.
"The female voice was too hard to reproduce," says Sanchez.