Review: Nuance V-Builder 1.2
V-Builder provides a menu of draggable elements on the bottom left pane of the application for embedding scripting tags for ASP, PHP, and JSP. This enables developers to stay in the tool when its time to make the app more dynamic or access database content. You won't find language-specificdebugging features as you might in a tool such as Microsoft Visual Studio, but it is suitablefor experienced developers who don't really need those features anyway. You can intermingle dynamictags with grammars and VoiceXML elements. Still, some developers who have a good handle on VoiceXMLmay prefer to drop back to their preferred editor when developing back-end scripts that querydatabase content through a Web or application server.
SpeechObjectsSpeaking of database content, V-Builder includes a number of draggable SpeechObject components that make querying a database, scraping content from a Web page, or submitting form content to back-end Web scripts easy.Of course, this can also be done with the embedded scripting tags as well, but its a nice addition that rounds out a terrific tool. SpeechObject components are accessible from a draggable menu of items inthe bottom left hand portion of the interface. Components are accessed from within the VoiceXMLsource via the <object> element. If you decide to use the SpeechObjects components, you shouldmake sure that your production platform fully supports the Nuance platform including SpeechObjects.
Recording promptsAnother valuable feature is the ability to create and record prompts and drop them into applications.This is done by loading and editing an existing .wav file, or by creating a new prompt in your project. Whencreating a new prompt, you are provided with a text field where you can type the prompt script for whoeverwill be recording the prompt. You can then have your voice talent record and review the prompts by selectingeach prompt and pressing the record button. Once you're satisfied with the prompts, you can select and drag theminto a dialog from the prompts menu.
Testing ApplicationsV-Builder isn't simply a VoiceXML editor. With the exception of Vocalizer, Nuance's Text-To-Speech engine, V-Builder includes the software you need to actively test the application on your workstation as though you were dialing in through a gateway. This is possibly the feature that sets V-Builder apart from its competition. By hitting the green play button, V-Builder starts up the Nuance server software and, using the sound card, allows you to interact with the application using the same software that would be run in production. The fact that the software used to test VoiceXML applications is essentially the same software you'd have on a Nuance VoiceXML gateway means that if the application works ok in V-Builder, it will probably work the same way in production. This is also a great time saver where you may have otherwise spent several hours tuning your prompt delays and synthesized output overthe telephone. With VoiceXML, one of the things I discovered early on is that your application won't flow the way you think it will. Being able to run the application through the Nuance software is a time saver. Remember, V-Builder comes with everything you need to test a VoiceXML application. In fact, I oftenuse V-Builder when conducting VoiceXML training seminars so that I don't have to go through the hassleof lugging around a separate VoiceXML gateway or dialing up a voice gateway everytime I want to testa piece of VoiceXML code.
Probably my favorite V-Builder feature is the ability to test grammar files. By selecting the Test grammars button at the top of the interface, you can test any of the grammars in your projectby selecting it from a dropdown menu and pressing the Recognize button and speaking into the computer'smicrophone. A detailed report of the match results against the grammar is displayed after you stop speaking.There's also a button to replay the utterance that was just matched so that you can compare the resultsword for word. Since grammars are the most difficult part of developing a production qualityVoiceXML application, this tool provide a great resource for tuning and refining your grammars beforeyou deploy them to a VoiceXML gateway for testing.
Deploying ApplicationsOnce you've developed and tested the application in V-Builder, you can publish the application to your production Web server or gateway. This makes production rollouts easier for Web developers who may not have a good handle on packaging, distributing, and installing software. It uses the WebDav protocol, whichis usually turned off by default on most Web servers, so you will have to turn it on if you wantpush button publishing capabilities. For me, FTP is just as easy.
WeaknessesEven though V-Builder is a strong tool, it still has its weaknesses. This is forgiveable given that it isas new as VoiceXML. A feature that still needs some work is the graphical grammar builder. Like the Designand Source views for VoiceXML documents, V-Builder includes a diagram view for creating and editing GSL grammars.While I think a visual representation of a grammar can be helpful, V-Builder has a tendancyto erase the contents of the grammar when switching from the diagram to the source view. Also, the ASRengine can sometimes eat up so much memory that it causes V-Builder to crash. This can probably besolved by adding additional memory however. Every now and then, I get an erronious non-critical Java errorthat causes the interface to do strange things, requiring me to restart the application. I'm surethese issues will be worked out in future releases of the product. Also, keep in mind that theseerrors are irregular. They happen to me maybe once or twice over the course of a day under whichmy machine is usually using all available memory to run several large applications in addition toV-Builder.
ConclusionOverall, I give V-Builder a 4 out of 5 rating. I didn't give it a 5 because of the few minorbugs that still exist. Also, the tool does not yet support the VoiceXML 2.0 specification andgrammar format. From what I hear, these issues will be resolved in the next release of the productand will likely receive a 5 from this reviewer in the future. From examining and using V-Builder,I really appreciate the time and effort that has been spent to make it easy for developers tobegin developing VoiceXML applications with minimal effort. It's obvious that the folks at Nuanceknow their stuff and have gone the extra mile to provide a complete set of tools that will helpVoiceXML developers recognize a significant productivity gain over a simple text editor. Keep up thegood work guys.
About Jonathan Eisenzopf
Jonathan is a member of the Ferrum Group, LLC based in Reston, Virginia that specializes in Voice Web consulting and training. He has also written articles for other online and print publications including WebReference.com and WDVL.com. Feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org regarding questions or comments about the VoiceXML Developer series, or for more information about training and consulting services.
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