• July 1, 2010
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

A Glimpse of What's to Come

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As part of a new class that concluded in the spring semester, undergraduate engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created new voice applications that 

address real-world problems fellow students face every day. One student even created a virtual receptionist to help his dad’s plumbing business with call routing, voicemail-to-email conversion, and information capture so customers can pay their bills over the phone.

The course, “Engineering Innovation and Design,” was offered in conjunction with speech application provider Angel.com as part of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. The select, hands-on program gave 45 MIT engineering students the opportunity to design next-generation voice user interface applications for consumers using the same Angel.com Web-based Site Builder technology that is used by Angel.com’s enterprise clients to build complex IVR and call center solutions. Students also subjected their applications to several rounds of usability tests as part of the class.

In previous semesters, students relied on cumbersome VoiceXML coding for their projects, but by using Angel.com’s Site Builder platform to create their projects instead, they were able to focus more on the creative and business presentation aspects of their projects and less on the programming. 

Some of the solutions developed during the 13-week class included automated voice applications to find the best parties and nightlife in town, manage to-do lists, and steer remote-control cars—all through a simple phone call. Among them were:

  • the “MITchell Partymann” Facebook Party App, in which students invite a virtual MIT party character to their event, and then others can call the Partymann phone number to have relevant data on local parties read back to them over the phone;
  • Foursquare Voice, which allows users to interact with the location-based social networking Web site Foursquare to connect with their friends in real time, check in, earn badges, hear tips, keep to-do lists, find friends, and even record messages for Twitter, Facebook, and iPhone;
  • an  application that allows skateboarders to locate and connect to stores and skate parks that accommodate their boarding styles and location preferences;
  • an application that lets freshmen pledging fraternities and sororities manage their contacts during rush;
  • an application that gives voice directions to the nearest bathroom, based on campus building floor plans;
  • a stress reliever that provides basic visualization and breathing exercises, health and wellness advice, jokes, and an outlet for students to vent their frustrations;
  • a system that provides student-generated restaurant reviews;
  • an application that helps students find famous quotations;
  • an application that lets students find the next campus shuttle;
  • an application that lets students access multilingual pick-up lines for specific moods and settings;
  • an application that teaches ballet steps; and
  • an application that lets drama students rehearse their lines.

David Toliver, senior manager of marketing and communications at Angel.com, calls many of these applications “commercially viable,” but beyond that he says they stretch the concept of the traditional IVR. “It shows there’s much more to an IVR than what companies think of,” he says. “There are so many applications that we would not think of, but by putting the tools in the right hands you can do some pretty amazing things.”

MIT guest instructor Blade Kotelly taught the class and will do so again in the fall, this time to nearly double the number of students. “The students created some amazing applications using Angel.com’s [application programming interface],” he says. “I had students with zero coding experience producing applications in minutes, so I had to make the homework more difficult.”

Angel will again provide its Site Builder to the students. “I’m very interested in seeing what else the students come up with,” Toliver says.

“It is an honor to have Angel.com’s technology deployed within a university as prestigious as MIT to help foster creativity among future engineers and prepare these students for prospective careers in voice application design,” said Dave Rennyson, president and chief operating officer of Angel.com, in a statement. “As a company at the forefront of innovation in voice technology and the development of next-generation voice solutions, we are proud to contribute to the education of our future colleagues and leaders.” —Leonard Klie

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