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Build Voice Presentation Layers For Delivering Applications To Phones

Build Voice Presentation Layers For Delivering Applications To Phones

BEA WebLogic Workshop 8.1 provides a wide range of tools for creating Web server applications. Components integrated using Workshop's extensible component model include Java controls, page flows, and source and design views that are available to any software vendor or Web application developer.

As the foundation of an integrated development environment, WebLogic Workshop offers the power to build new Web services that naturally inherit its Web design innovations. SandCherry's AppDev VXML is one example of extending BEA WebLogic Workshop 8.1 functionality to allow the creation of services that can be accessed by phone.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and speechbased services using touch-tone or speech recognition can now be consolidated with Web applications into a three-tiered application infrastructure, reducing solution costs and improving the user experience. These services have traditionally run on proprietary silos of hardware and software completely independent of Web-based applications and infrastructure. The silo approach drives up solution costs by duplicating data integration, business logic, and systems - not to mention the cost of user dissatisfaction caused by inconsistent experiences between different voice and Web systems. Developers can now simply add a new voice presentation layer to Web applications to extend their reach to any customer or employee with a phone while reusing existing business logic and back office resources (see Figure 1).

 

The SandCherry AppDev voice extension facilitates development of the voice presentation layer for controlling speech and media resources, which include automatic speech recognition (ASR), text-to- speech (TTS), and prerecorded prompts. By integrating the voice presentation layer development components into WebLogic Workshop 8.1, developers can reduce the time and cost of developing and maintaining a speech application by reusing the controls and models already created in the Workshop IDE for a Web application.

Integration Overview
Any voice application requires three components to work: the voice user interface design and flow, written in VoiceXML (VXML); grammars that identify what spoken input the application will recognize, written in Grammar XML (GRXML); and audio prompts and announcements played to the user that are captured as wave or other types of audio formats. Adding a voice application development environment under WebLogic Workshop required integration with five major Workshop components to provide a seamless development experience between Web and voice Web projects. Extending these components consists of integrating previously stand-alone applications and creating new applications that dock and run within the Workshop workspace. The five components extended by AppDev VXML and the tools that use them are:

  • Web Project: Voice Web Project
  • Document: Audio, Grammar XML (GRXML), and VoiceXML (VXML) document types
  • Tag Library: VoiceXML and GRXML tags for voice documents
  • Action: Voice-related menu and toolbar and launching external applications
  • Frame: Application frames that can be docked within WebLogic Workshop

    The functionality added to WebLogic Workshop offers both development and testing tools, since one of the primary objectives in building the development environment was to create a complete stand alone development and test environment for speech applications. Using the Workshop-based approach, developers no longer require an expensive and complex speech hardware platform to develop and test voice applications.

    Voice Application Development Tools
    Voice applications require several different components that must be combined to deliver the three basic functions required for a voice interaction with a user: controlling the application flow, processing voice input from a user, and outputting prerecorded (or synthesized) information to a user. The development tools added represent the combination of the Web view presented by Workshop and the voice application view required by the speech and media components used to deliver the voice application. The development tools added include:

  • Voice Web Project: Project to maintain voice-related documents and functionality. A Voice Web Project inherits the Web project functionality of a WebLogic Workshop Web Project.
  • VXML Document: Document containing a VXML page depicting the flow of a voice application. A VXML document inherits JSP document functionality from the WebLogic Workshop JSP Document.
  • GRXML document: Document containing a GRXML page, which lists the valid text (grammars) representing the spoken words the application will recognize. A GRXML document inherits JSP document functionality in the same manner as a VXML document.
  • Audio Document: Document containing wave audio data of a prompt or announcement to play to a caller. The prompt is generally played before trying to recognize a caller's response. This is a completely new document type that extends Workshop's base Document class.
  • Tree Design View: Creates a tree-oriented view of a VXML or GRXML page. The tree gives the developer an easy-to-manage and readable view of the voice documents just as Workshop does for Web documents.
  • Voice Menu and Toolbar: Menu and toolbar containing voice application tools. SandCherry added the Log Viewer, Validator, SoftPhone, and Test Voice Application tools that are available from the voice menu and toolbar. These options were incorporated by extending the WebLogic Workshop Action class.
  • Validator: Uses a third-party parser to validate a VXML or GRXML page being hosted by the WebLogic Web Server. Integrating this component required extending the WebLogic Workshop Frame class.

    Together, these tools allow a developer to add tags from VXML and GRXML tag libraries, create wave files to be played within a voice application, and validate the scripts of the application before testing.

    Voice Web Project
    The Voice Web Project is a new project type created to hold both voice and Webrelated documents. The project extends WebLogic Workshop's Web Project, and by doing so inherits Web project functionality. Java Controls (JCX), Java Page Flows (JPF), and any other legal Web document may be added to a voice project. Once a new application has been created, the "Voice Web Project" can be found under the "Voice Interface" category. This project type was created to accommodate the integration of VXML, GRXML, and audio documents for a Voice User Interface (VUI) into the Workshop model while providing sufficient separation due to the unique nature of speech applications to avoid unnecessarily complicating existing Web projects in Workshop.

    The Documents
    There are three new voice document types that exist only within a Voice Project - VXML, GRXML, and audio documents. Once the project has been created, a developer can create these voice documents just like any other Workshop document (see Figure 2).

     

    VXML DOCUMENT
    Voice Extensible Markup Language (VoiceXML or VXML), defined by the W3C standards body, is the leading speech application language today. The description of VXML contained in the standard is:

    "VoiceXML is designed for creating audio dialogs that feature synthesized speech, digitized audio, recognition of spoken and DTMF key input, recording of spoken input, telephony, and mixed initiative conversations. Its major goal is to bring the advantages of Web-based development and content delivery to interactive voice response [IVR] applications."

    The SandCherry team identified several overriding goals that guided the WebLogic Workshop extensions to support VXML files:
    1.  WebLogic Workshop must understand VXML 2.0 in order to provide familiar IDE development aids such as property editing and code completion.
    2.  HTML and VXML document types must be different within Workshop.
    3.  Each VXML file must be processed as a JavaServer Page (JSP) to harness the power of the BEA WebLogic platform.

    Since SandCherry's AppDev's VXML was developed in parallel with the WebLogic Workshop integration, fundamental design choices such as using JSPs for the VXML pages within AppDev allowed the development team to easily integrate with Workshop's JSP Document Class and inherit the capabilities provided by WebLogic Workshop. Creating a custom JSP tag library for VXML made it possible to integrate into Workshop's JSP designer and reuse many of its features to help developers write VXML. Because some functionality must be enabled when an AppDev document is open, but disabled when a standard Workshop document is open, a new document type was required. Creating the new document type was accomplished within the WebLogic Workshop extensibility framework by extending the base Document class to create a new "voice document" type for both VXML and GRXML file types.

    GRXML DOCUMENT
    GRXML is another W3C standard used for defining grammars within voice applications. As stated in the specification:

    "Grammars [are] for use in speech recognition so that developers can specify the words and patterns of words to be listened for by a speech recognizer. The syntax of the grammar format is presented in an XML Form."

    GRXML documents were added to WebLogic Workshop in the same way as VXML documents, with the "voice document" type mapped to the file extension "grxml". A unique tag library was created for GRXML based on W3C's "Speech Recognition Grammar Specification" (SRGS 1.0).

    AUDIO DOCUMENT
    Audio documents present two unique challenges within the WebLogic Workshop framework since an audio document is simply a wave file used within a voice application. First, audio files include wave recordings, not text, yet must still reside in the Workshop project so that the application can use them. The second challenge is that presenting an application developer with a GUI-based source or design view of a wave file isn't very useful. An audio recording tool must be embedded into the Workshop document editor to address these challenges.

    BEA WebLogic Workshop offers a clean and easy solution to these challenges by giving the tool developer the flexibility to extend the base Document class, remove the source view, and embed a once standalone tool into the Workshop workspace. Using this method, an audio recording and playback tool was integrated into the Workshop environment so that when an audio document is opened, the audio tool is launched in what is normally the source view window. This tool records audio files for use during development and testing of the voice application.

    Tree Design View
    A Tree Design view was created for VXML and GRXML documents to take the place of the original Design View. Since both VXML and GRXML documents inherit JSP functionality, the original Design view was not useful for creating voice applications. Using a tree to display and develop a voice application provides a clear hierarchical view of the script. Under this view, a developer may also close and open nodes to shrink and expand sections of the application to focus on particular portions of the document. WebLogic Workshop provides the flexibility to disable the original view and create a new one that can be displayed as a tab in the source editor (see Figure 3).

     

    With all of the functionality it provides, the Tree Design view is a very powerful tool for creating a voice application. First, it provides integral error checking of the tags. Second, it makes it easy to cut, paste, copy, and move large sections of a document. Finally, it provides an easy-to-read view of the entire voice document.

    The error checking built into the Tree Design view offers users a familiar environment to build voice files incorporating many of the features found in the normal WebLogic Workshop design view: nodes containing errors are color coded in a similar fashion; right-clicking on elements (tree nodes) within the view displays a menu that includes the legal actions for that node; and users can drag-and-drop any tag for any node. Additional intelligence is provided on insertion to ensure that tags are valid within the VXML specification to help avoid basic errors. The Tree Design view uses the underlying Workshop compiler service to provide diagnosis for each of the nodes (see Figure 4).

     

    Voice Menu and Toolbar
    The Voice Menu and Toolbar are simple controls that allow a user to start voice tools, including Test Voice Application, Log Viewer, Validator, and SoftPhone.

    Adding these tools to the menu options is easily accomplished by extending the Workshop Action class with several lines of XML that specify the location of the tool, the icon, and the Java code to run when the option is selected. A snippet of script for adding the Validator menu option is shown in Listing 1.

    In this example, the "action class" is the Java code to launch the Validator, Validator.gif is the icon to display, and "location priority" specifies where to display the tool within the toolbar and menu. Adding actions within WebLogic Workshop is simple, yet powerful, since these actions integrate seamlessly and inherit the Workshop look and feel (see Figure 5).

     

    Validator
    The Validator tool verifies VXML and GRXML documents by pulling both types of files from a WebLogic Server and running them through a "validating parser" (Apache Xerces) in AppDev VXML using the W3C Schema appropriate for the current document. The parser downloads the active file in the same way that a VXML browser downloads applications from the Web server during service deployment. The content being validated is displayed in a window, along with a list of any errors found in the document.

    The Validator, which is written in Java, uses a Swing panel that plugs neatly into Workshop's Frame extensions. These extensions allow the Validator to provide a consistent UI experience for the developer by inheriting Workshop's look, feel, and functionality.

    Test Voice Tools
    Testing a voice application offers a new set of challenges not originally envisioned within the Workshop environment. Where a Web application can be easily displayed in a window, a voice application requires a phone-based interaction with a speech platform controlling a number of different media components. SandCherry has preintegrated a variety of components using its software-based speech platform and added a software-based phone emulator to provide a complete test environment for voice applications. Four tools are used when testing a voice project within an application.

  • Test Voice Application: This component starts the voice platform and component processes necessary for testing a voice application.
  • SoftPhone: A software-based phone emulator that allows a developer to call a voice application for testing. The Workshop Action class is used to start the SoftPhone application, which is an external component to WebLogic Workshop.
  • Log Viewer: A developer may view the logs of all the different voice resources while the application is running or after the application has completed. The Log Viewer uses the Workshop Frames class to allow the log viewer to dock within Workshop and inherit the appropriate look-and-feel.
  • AppTuner: A software-based speech platform for a laptop or PC that controls the speech recognition, prompt playing, and text-to-speech media components required for application testing.

    Test Voice Application
    Test Voice Application simplifies the test process by allowing the developer to launch multiple components needed to test an application using a single button. Using the WebLogic Workshop Action class, this button starts the WebLogic Server to host the application, the Log Viewer to view speech resource logs, and the SoftPhone for calling the application. When launched, the SoftPhone is automatically populated to run the current VXML document.

    SoftPhone
    The SoftPhone, like the audio document, is also a stand-alone program. Again, extending the Action class from the Voice Menu made it easy to start the SoftPhone without requiring any changes to the SoftPhone application. Other WebLogic Workshop extensions allowed SandCherry to retrieve current document information used to auto-populate the phone and specify which VXML document to run (see Figure 6).

     

    Log Viewer
    The Log Viewer provides access to important information regarding the status of the speech resources used to run a voice application. For example, as an application is processing speech recognition, the log viewer can be used to verify that the recognition engine is matching speech grammars correctly.

    The Log Viewer is launched from the Voice Menu or toolbar via WebLogic Workshop's Action class (see Voice Menu and Toolbar), seamlessly integrating into Workshop by using the Frame class. By default, the window has the appropriate look-and-feel of other WebLogic Workshop components and can dock into multiple locations (see Figure 7).

     

    AppTuner
    AppTuner, the underlying speech platform for testing voice applications, is a complex system with a number of integrated components. The AppTuner Console is a separate GUI program for starting and managing speech resource components, giving the application developer an easy to read view of the running speech resources (see Figure 8).

     

    Originally, the console was going to be the only portion of the AppDev suite requiring start-up outside of the WebLogic Workshop window - unfortunate since all other voice development tools were embedded neatly within the Workshop framework. A simple solution exists within Workshop, however, that requires no code at all to add this to the Workshop environment.

    WebLogic Workshop provides a tool for starting an executable from the Tools menu. Following the steps below made the stand-alone AppTuner Console an integrated tool within Workshop.
    1.  From the Tools menu, select IDE Properties.
    2.  In the left-hand pane of the IDE Properties Window, click on the Tools folder.
    3.  Select the New Tool button at the top of the right-hand pane.
    4.  In the Tool Name text box, enter "AppTuner Console".
    5.  In the Directory text box, enter the full path to the AppTunerConsole.exe
    6.  Click OK.

    The console is now available from the External Tools menu option within Workshop.

    Summary
    Integrating SandCherry's AppDev VXML into BEA WebLogic Workshop 8.1 provides a number of unique challenges due to the inherent differences between voice applications and Web applications. Incorporating a new project and file types for voice applications, dealing with files that contained only recorded audio, and incorporating external applications into Workshop were only a few of the potential roadblocks to offering a complete voice development environment seamlessly integrated into Workshop. Surprisingly, this effort was far easier than expected, despite moments that prompted head-scratching and calls to the BEA WebLogic Workshop team.

    In the end, however, the extensibility components built into WebLogic Workshop 8.1 provided solutions for almost every challenge faced during integration. Extensible Project, Document, Frame, and Action classes offered tremendous flexibility for incorporating new capabilities into the WebLogic Workshop framework. In addition to supporting internal enhancements, Workshop's extensibility support provided different ways to incorporate external applications and even allow applications unrelated to the Web application server or its components to appear fully integrated. Developers can now build and test Web and voice applications seamlessly using BEA WebLogic Workshop 8.1 and SandCherry's AppDev VXML.

  • More Stories By Eric Assouad

    Eric Assouad is a senior software engineer for SandCherry with nearly a decade of experience developing both ERP and telecommunications object oriented software. He has held key architect, developer, and software team lead roles for creating innovative telecom products such as Web-based voice conferencing.

    More Stories By Al Haddock

    Al Haddock is a senior software engineer with SandCherry and has over 15 years’ experience developing software for the defense, bioinformatics, and telecom industries. Drawing on over a decade of object-oriented programming experience, he has also taught courses in both introductory and advanced Java.

    More Stories By Michael Clark

    Michael Clark is a software engineer for SandCherry experienced in developing speech and multimodal (data+voice) applications using VoiceXML and Speech Application Language Tags (SALT), with a focus on combining Web and network technologies. 

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