Functionality or fidelity – choose your weapon

This post explores the different characteristics of real-time, online communications tools from the perspectives of fidelity and functionality.

There’s a plethora of different real-time, online communication tools out there, with widely varying characteristics. In searching for the right tool for the job, it seems to me that there are two main criteria that are most likely to affect your decision – fidelity and functionality.
By fidelity I mean the richness of the person-to-person communication. At the most basic level, you are limited to simple text messaging, as with chat rooms or the original instant messaging programs. Text comes first because it requires practically no bandwidth and no investment in special hardware (sound cards, headsets, cameras).
It’s a big step up from this is to add voice (VOIP), because now you really need a broadband connection as well as a sound card and a headset. On the other hand, the communication is much more fluid and carries more information in the tone of voice.
The natural extension to this is to add webcams to the mix and allow visual communication. Again, you’re adding a great deal of information, this time through body language. The price is even more bandwidth and yet more equipment. You can go further and add the sort of top-end cameras and high-definition displays that you’ll find with telepresence. The result is that you might as well be in the same room as the other participants; the price comes in bandwidth, custom-build video conferencing facilities and, of course, hard cash.
Clearly fidelity will be important in certain situations, but so too will be functionality. By functionality I mean the richness of the interactive experience. At the lowest level, though still of huge importance, is simple chat – two-way communication using text or voice. Any real-time online communication tool will allow you to chat.
Moving up comes the ability to present information using visual aids such as slides, animations, movies and – should you be working in a virtual world such as SecondLife – 3D graphics. It’s easy to see how this capability adds a great deal to more structured events such as webinars or virtual classroom sessions, but you’re going beyond the capability of simple chat rooms and instant messaging.
At a higher level still comes the ability to interact in more structured ways, through application sharing, virtual whiteboards, polls and break-out rooms. Now you have all the components you need to deliver richly interactive sessions.
Any model worth its salt has to be expressable as a two-dimensional grid and this one’s no exception.
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Different types of communication tools support different levels of fidelity and functionality. First chat rooms:
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Instant messaging, including tools such as Skype, go further in terms of fidelity, but not functionality:
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A virtual world, such as SecondLife, can be made made to support higher levels of functionality, although this is very much the exception:
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Web conferencing incorporates all the functionality you could need, and also has the potential for high fidelity (although, to be fair, most users do not take advantage of the facility to use webcams and purists would not anyway use the term hi-fi to describe the picture quality):
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Telepresence, and similar forms of high-end video conferencing, offer a truly hi-fi experience and integrate with web conferencing to provide all the interactive functionality:
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So, choosing the right tool is all about assessing the level of fidelity and functionality that’s needed for the sessions you’ll be running. Pitch too low on either scale and your online sessions may not achieve their objectives. Pitch too high and you’ll be consuming lots of unnecessary resources.