Part II – Interactive Voice Response

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is the technology callers love to hate. This “talking” computer technology had its beginnings at Brookhaven Labs on Long Island, N.Y. in the mid sixties under government grants. It took input from telephone touch tones (Dual Tone Multi Frequency – DTMF)), emulating an operator’s terminal keystrokes as input, to access computer data bases and provideback spoken information by combining prerecorded words and phrases.

In 1969 several of the developers left Brookhaven and started Periphonics, later bought by Nortel. One of the initial applications was used internally by financial institutions to provide customers in branch account information by allowing tellers to access account information using a touch tone telephone. With the proliferation of automated teller machines (ATMs) by Diebold, IBM, and NCR in the late seventies, customer self service was born.  This paved the way for acceptance of IVR systems.

Initially the technology was very proprietary and all the applications had to be written by the vendors. In the mid eighties, the technology vendors developed programming interfaces allowing the employing institutions to develop their own applications. The technology spread rapidly in the nineties to the financial, healthcare, transportation, utility, and government sectors as a way to provide callers information 24 hours a day while saving the cost of live agents.

Yet the technology was limited to information that could be accessed using only telephone touch tones. This worked fine for simple inquiries, but not for more complex transactions such as ordering airline tickets, i.e. travelling from Boston to San Francisco would require the caller to be presented unmanageably long selection lists or similarly long lists for ordering items from a catalog. As a result, speech recognition was born to offer the caller a more natural telephone interface. This allowed the caller to essentially have a spoken dialog with a computer.

I’ll discuss this technology in my next blog.

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