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"Virtual" DefinitionPeople in the computer industry are pretty fast and loose with the word "virtual." And, as you can see on the left, the definition is kind of confusing and lawyer-like. Nevertheless, we're stuck with it. This useful but much-abused word rolls nicely off the tongue, appealing to geeks and marketeers alike.

When you find "virtual" snuggled up next to a noun, it usually means something that acts like it's there, but isn't -- it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but it's not a duck. For instance, many operating systems -- Windows 95 included -- incorporate something called virtual memory. By keeping inactive portions of code in a "swap file" on disk, the operating system makes it appear that there is more memory available than is physically installed on the machine. As anyone knows who has attempted to run a big application on a machine that is short on physical memory, the deception is not perfect; all that swapping slows things down. Still, virtual memory describes the situation pretty well.
     The feverishly popular term virtual reality is a little shakier, though. It really ought to be called simulation, but the computer industry has a long tradition of adjective inflation (have you ever tried to operate a laptop computer on your lap?), so we're probably stuck with it.

You might as well resign yourself to seeing "virtual" a lot. It's used virtually everywhere these days. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) We've got virtual cash, virtual servers and even a Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). If it seems like the edges of reality are beginning to blur, just be thankful that "virtual" is a bit too short to be turned into an acronym.

For a real-world example of virtuality and its attendant confusion, see the WhertRA article titled "Out of Memory" Error.

Maintained by William K. Walker
Copyright 1997 by William K. Walker
Last update: 23 Jan 97