A Brief Perspective on the Evolution of IVR Technologies

With the constantly accelerating pace of technology advances, we sometimes lose sight of what earlier introductions of now commonly used services originally looked like.  So we thought you might enjoy a brief history on the evolution of IVR technologies.

Early on Automated Call Attendants (ACD) allowed for some basic or fundamental call routing capabilities.  The auto attendant had a very specific purpose in mind; to replace the live attendant or operator and route calls.  Most common auto attendant features included routing calls to an extension, transfer to voice mail, play messages, repeat menu selections, have a default mailbox, and allow you to “0” out to an operator.  All are important features, but with limited operational intelligence. Auto attendants were almost always integrated into a PBX system.

A PBX (private branch exchange) connects the internal phones, typically for a business to the external telephone network, and through trunk lines. Because PBX systems incorporated fax machines, modems, telephones, and more, the term “extension” became widely used to refer to any end point of the PBX.  As PBX systems became more powerful, enhanced features were added, but still not to the level of current IVR (interactive voice response) systems.

It was the invention of DTMF (dual-tone, multi-frequency signaling) that provided the technical foundation for future use of IVR systems.  DTMF or touch tone phone systems were first made available to the public in 1963.

It was in the early 1970’s that IVR systems began to make headway in call centers to automate basic, repetitive tasks.  Initially call center IVR systems were tied into larger mainframe computing systems. The technology was still fairly rudimentary and expensive.  By the 1980’s a growing number of new vendors, advances in technology (both computationally and in networking) made the use of IVR systems more cost effective.  As the IVR systems became more intelligent and powerful, application and specific industry usage increased.  This was also the time where IVR functionality became more intelligent and separated from PBX systems.

One of the earlier drawbacks to IVR systems was that almost all the programming languages were proprietary.  These proprietary languages or scripting tools were unique to the specific IVR vendor and not transportable across other IVR systems.  That limitation, combined with the fact that unless you are a Fortune 500 size firm, IVR development skills are not typically mainstream skills required by most companies.  That required a customer wishing to use IVR systems to rely heavily on the system vendor to also write the applications for their use.

Speech recognition for IVR systems, also known as Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) systems have continued to gain acceptance over time.  Speech Reco (industry slang referring to Automated Speech Recognition) began to make real inroads in the late 1990’s as the underlying speech recognition algorithms improved, along with the processing power of hardware.  Speech recognition applications bring their unique set of challenges as well as benefits, and speech reco enabled applications require a different development approach from DTMF based applications.  Interestingly, the first speech recognition device was showcased in 1952, and was capable of only recognizing single spoken digits. (1)

The widespread and rapid acceptance of the internet and web based applications proved to be another inflection point in the evolution of IVR systems and languages.  The desire for more tightly integrated capabilities of voice applications to internet based applications drove the development of VXML (Voice Extensible Markup Language) and CCXML (Call Control XML).

VXML and CCXML make it possible to develop applications that work on multiple platforms (with some limited porting efforts).  VXML specifically helps IVR applications integrate more effectively with internet based applications.  The IVR application can be written by individuals who are also experienced with web based application development using XML   A major goal of VXML was to make web based applications and content available through a voice portal.

CCXML is designed to enable call control telephony support for VXML applications. CCXML provides control for how phone calls are placed, answered, transferred, conferenced, and more.

Another significant advantage of making voice applications easily web compatible is the ability to deliver services through a hosted services or cloud based business model.  By opening up these previously proprietary systems, the focus is moving from hardware to the applications and services perspective.

Early adopters of IVR technologies included the financial industry, utilities, travel industry, and other capital intensive industries with high call volume customer care centers.  Current technology advances have driven down system costs, improved reliability, enabled more effective service delivery models, which in turn have enhanced and improved IVR system usage.

However, none of these advances mean much if companies using IVR systems do not stay laser focused on improving and enhancing the user experience based on these newer technologies.

As always, the team at Acclaim Telecom would be happy to discuss ways to use IVR applications to enhance top line revenue or improve operational effectiveness.  And we promise to keep the sales pitch in the desk drawer!

1 – Davies , K.H., Biddulph, R. and Balashek, S. (1952) Automatic Speech Recognition of Spoken Digits, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 24(6) pp.637 – 642

Operator Assistance Unavailable

IVR phone keypadCan you spot what is wrong with these messages?

“Using your touch tone keys, enter the name of the person you wish to contact starting with the last name. Press # when finished.” Or,

“To speak with someone with product knowledge, you must dial a different phone number. Please call 1-800-HLP-FAST” (Please DO NOT call this number as it is for illustrative purposes only!)

Or finally, this text message I received on my cell phone; “Call 972 – XXX-HELP if you would like additional assistance.”

Did you spot the problem?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with any of the messages if you can make the phone calls on a home or business telephone where the alphabet is clearly identified on the key pad. Anyone out there really ever take the time to memorize which 3 letters of the alphabet are on the number 5 of your phone? I certainly don’t, and the alphabet is not identified on my Blackberry cell phone numbers.

If only they had a speech recognition front end!

We all know the old saying, “First impressions are everything”. Sometimes companies overlook the most basic entry points into their companies, and miss the opportunity to maximize a positive user experience, no matter how trivial or small it may seem.

In many situations a simple application of technology brings more immediate ROI, whether measured in financial or goodwill terms. Front ending your PBX call routing systems with a speech reco application is a good example of a high use feature, valuable to almost every caller or customer, and not very expensive to implement. Plus it seems pretty obvious with more and more individuals using cell phones, and with more than 50% of all cell phones sold being smart phones, you cannot use letters to identify which number to press on your keypad.

There are a number of vendors who provide speech recognition applications for call routing applications if you happen to have an older PBX system installed and wish to upgrade. You can also look into a cloud based PBX system with integrated voice recognition capabilities that also leverage other IVR capabilities. Acclaim Telecom can help you if you wish to explore cloud based options.

But the message I want to convey is speech recognition applications do not have to be expensive or sophisticated in order to provide benefit. Take a look at all aspects of contact with your company; your main phone number, voice mail system, call center, live agent support, and mobile applications. Identify where high volume customer contact occurs, and be sure to make the user experience as easy and as productive as possible, regardless of the types of technologies employed. After all, first impressions really are everything.

How Speech Recognition Improves Lives, Continued

Here’s something amazing — these days, you don’t even need the power of speech to take advantage of speech recognition technology.

We’ve been talking a bit about some of the extraordinary ways speech recognition applications can improve life for everyday people, as well as businesses; and not just with IVR systems.

Previously, we highlighted a paralyzed man and father-of-four who — thanks to reality TV hit “Extreme Home Makeover” (the one where they “move that bus!” and reveal a thoroughly remodeled home for a family in need) — could live more independently in a house equipped with assistance from voice recognition. More than 250 tasks that had always been difficult to complete from his wheelchair could be done via voice commands that responded exclusively to Carl’s voice.

Here’s another inspiring way Speech Recognition technologies can help those in need:

Al Keneda lost his vocal cords — and his voice — to cancer 16 years ago.

He remembers the panic he felt when he awoke in the ICU unable to speak, and the challenges of learning to communicate without his voice. In the beginning, he communicated with a white board and a pen. Then, with something called an electrolarynx — a cylindrical metal device about 3 or 4 inches long that he holds to his throat when he speaks.

“I used this for three years before I got my voice prosthesis,” he says in the robotic voice produced by the electrolarynx. “It was a barrel of laughs.”

Recently, at a scientific conference in Washington, D.C., German researchers showed off a technology that might work even better for Keneda — once it’s perfected. The system, called EMG-based Silent Speech Recognition, relies on a computer to construct words by reading the muscles in the face.

(Read the whole inspiring story here).

The basic idea isn’t too much different than a computer learning to read lips. A person can mouth words without actually saying them, which is enough for a computer to interpret the muscle movements and detect words. So far, the technology can recognize more than 2,000 words with 90 percent accuracy.

Here at Acclaim Telecom, we love seeing how Speech Recognition can improve lives in such a broad variety of ways. And while most IVR systems are not used in the medical manner described in this blog, our goal is to use this innovative technology to make life as easy as possible for both businesses and their valued customers who utilize IVR systems.

At its core, customer service is getting folks what they need — whether by answering questions, solving problems, responding quickly to information requests, or guiding them a more complex  procedure. Our turnkey speech recognition applications can make big a difference, both simplifying the process of getting help for customers, and saving companies costs while doing it. Enterprise-critical IVR solutions are win-win, and we’ve been developing them since 1993.

Speech Recognition – Beyond Just Customer Service Applications

Most of us in our industry associate Speech Recognition with an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) application used in a customer service or call center environment.  As a provider of Speech Recognition / IVR / Mobile Solutions,  Acclaim Telecom Services strives to assist our clients with efficient,  effective (and hopefully creative in some cases) uses of various IVR technologies to support their customers.

Recently I saw a wonderful example of how advances in speech recognition help individuals in a much different manner……….. improving the life of individuals who have experienced a catastrophic injury

Carl Hall was an all-American baseball player during his college years at Wichita State.  Carl married his high school sweetheart and has 4 great children.  In a split second his role as father, husband, and primary supporter of his family changed.  In 2010, Carl Hall was paralyzed from the neck down in a tragic car accident.

Carl’s family was the subject of an Extreme Home Makeover project which aired in April, 2011. Besides the obvious need of building a home to accommodate Carl’s special mobility and personal care requirements, technology became a central theme throughout the house.  Speech Recognition enabled far greater independence than Carl or his family had ever imagined.

The home incorporated over 250 voice commands that responded exclusively to Carl’s voice.  The voice commands ranged from the obvious of controlling lights and doors, cooking appliance control, to controlling automated hoists to help move Carl throughout his home.

You can view the TV program here.

This is but one example of how speech recognition can be applied.  Application areas abound in healthcare IVR, high performance aircraft, training, command and control,  home automation, video games, mobile telephony, robotics, transcription and more.

Closer to home in our area of expertise, Acclaim Telecom Services would be happy to discuss how IVR, Speech Recognition, or Mobile applications can help your company.  The areas of application are potentially limitless.