An IVR application is a telephone system that accepts touchtone keypresses and/or short voice commands to route calls, deliver information, or carry out specific tasks on behalf of the caller. In most IVR systems, a specialized computer plays pre-recorded sound files over the line and uses various types of telephony hardware to interpret the caller's speech or DTMF tones. The IVR computer, which is also known as a voice response unit, typically has access to a source of information the caller wants, stored either locally or remotely. Many IVRs even connect callers to legacy applications on a mainframe computer by masquerading as a terminal server in order to obtain an adequate number of simultaneous host connections. When interacting with a screen-based legacy application, the IVR usually employs a technique known as screen-scraping to send the appropriate keystrokes and capture relevant data.

Unfortunately, badly designed IVRs (like most helpdesk call center systems) have resulted in much knee-jerk criticism for the technology as a whole, but many parts of life are profoundly easier due to these systems. Tasks requiring little human intervention, such as registering for college courses or renewing library books, are a no-brainer for IVR access. College students have embraced IVR technology more than most, since the alternative to conducting their tasks over the phone usually involves standing in long lines and arguing with campus bureaucrats.

Implementing a successful IVR system often produces significant savings, which is clearly the strongest motivator for the technology. The banking industry has invested so much in IVR that many banks charge a fee to any customer who requires the assistance of a human operator instead of the IVR. Arguably, this unpopular practice, which has drawn many complaints toward IVRs, says more about the reprehensible greed of the banks than about the impersonal or inadequate nature of IVR technology.

Before the World Wide Web, an IVR application was one of the best choices for delivering time-sensitive information and services to large groups of customers. Now that customers can carry out most tasks at least as well on the web, IVR technology is evolving to become a spoken gateway to the web when only a standard telephone is available. Examples of this new breed of IVR applications will recite email messages and read the contents of web pages over the phone.

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