Getting started with IVR


We read reports about the "information highway," and wonder whoís going to be use it. The "information highway" is about computers and most people are on a third grade level at best when it comes to computer literacy.

The general publicís computer skills may be elementary, but they are experts at using the telephone. Computer telephony is the marriage of computers and the telephone. Software companies and phone companies now have standards which allow phones to become regular features on the next generation operating systems.

Computers and telephones are vary familiar to the newspaper industry. Voice processing applications such as personals and audiotex have established themselves as value added features.

Whatís new is the fact that computer hardware prices have fallen and a wide variety of voice processing application generator software is available on the market. If your newspaper has someone on staff with stronger computer skills than the everyday person, you now can develop your own voice processing applications. An initial investment of $4000 for dedicated 486 PC, a four line voice processing board, and application generation software can get you started.

The heart of computer telephony is the voice processing board. The major vendors are Dialogic (Parsippany, NJ 1-(800) 755-4444) and Rhetorex (Campbell, CA (408) 370-0881). The voice processing board will answer, initiate, and terminate calls. It can also dial and detect touch tone digits. The voice processing functions of the board allow it to record audio messages and play them back from your PCís hard disk drive.

An important aspect of your PC based system is the size and speed of your hard disk. A good estimate for disk size is one hour of voice messages equals ten megabytes of storage. Hard disk speed is also important. Moving data to and from your hard disk is the hardest load that voice processing applications put on your PC. Find a disk drive with the fastest seek time that you can afford. Donít get confused by CPU speeds. Just because the CPU is fast, it doesnít mean the disk drive will fast, too. You donít need a fast CPU to do voice processing. Most of the processing is done on the voice board, and not on the computerís CPU.

The prices for a four line voice processing board are around $1000. If you want to save even money, you can find these boards on the secondary market. Many of the boards on the secondary market are in excellent condition. Search Equipment Exchange (1-(800) 252-5969) is a free service to help you locate resellers of secondary voice processing equipment.

Application generator software will be the your most difficult decision. There are various levels of complexity. The simplest is canned packages for standard audiotex and voice mail. These are the easiest to set up, but offer the least amount of flexibility. Most are Windows based that give you several options to setup you application configuration. Itís a fast way to get a generic system up and running, but they tend to lack any value added features.

The easiest way to get started is with the Dialogic Starter Kit. It includes a Dialogic four line voice processing board, VFEdit audio recording and editing software, all the manuals, and Bob Edgarís popular "PC based Voice Processing" book. The starter kit also includes a promptmaster telephone. Itís a special telephone that is very useful in testing to insure your applications are running properly. The promptmaster saves you money because you donít have to order an extra telephone line to test your applications. It also allows you record voice prompts. The Starter Kit sells for around $1400.

If you have a skilled computer staff with programming experience, you may want a scripting language application generator. These are computer programming languages designed for PC based voice processing. The advantages of a scripting language is that it gives you the flexibility to design unique voice processing applications. The major drawback is that it takes quite of bit of time to create your own custom applications. There are two major voice processing scripting languages, Visual Voice from Stylus Innovations (Cambridge, MA (617) 621-9545), and VOS from Parity Software (San Francisco, CA (415) 989-0330).

Once youíve got your hardware configured and software installed, itís time to do something with it. Personals have proved to be a nice little revenue enhancer. Audiotex information lines such as school lunch menus, sport scores and schedules, time and weather proved to be new sources for revenue and promotion. Content for popular audiotex programming such as daily horoscopes, soap opera updates, and movie reviews are available through Tribune Media Services (Chicago, IL 1-(800) 245-6536. Their Voice News Network will deliver the programming via modem. You will have to configure your communications software to match the protocols in order to receive the programming.

Faxback is a new voice processing application that is just starting to catch on. It can allows for consumers to get more detailed information than through a phone call. The caller will enter the digits of their fax number, and the voice processing system will respond by faxing a document to their machine.

Doing it yourself will save you money in the long run, and give you much valued experience at electronic publishing. However, voice processing is like any other computer system. it takes time to learn it.


Rob Campanell
robcamp@well.com


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