Virtual Definition & Meaning

The term virtual is used among computer scientists to distinguish something that is merely conceptual from something that has an absolute, physical reality. A few examples:

  • Virtual memory refers to an imaginary set of locations or addresses, which are converted into real memory addresses when the program or application is executed. It is not the same as the real physical memory composed of transistors, so it is considered virtual.

  • Virtual reality describes an artificial environment that is presented to a user through specialized equipment. Because the technology creates an immersive audio and visual experience, the encounter is realistic, but the user s physical reality does not change.

  • Virtualization is a software version of a physical device – one physical server, for example, can hold a number of virtual servers. Virtualization can also mean bringing multiple pieces of hardware together to act as one, as in storage virtualization, and even across geographical distances, as in virtual data centers.

  • In a more analog example, the metaphysical mind can be considered a virtual brain in that it exists conceptually, but the physical matter is the human brain itself.

Does virtual mean online?

Not necessarily. While virtual is widely used to characterize online activities (e.g. virtual learning, virtual events, virtual meetings), virtual refers to the specific environment in which those activities take place rather than the activities themselves.

In the case of virtual learning, a student s ability to access lessons and assignments online means the virtual classroom by which he or she accesses those lessons does not physically exist, but it does not mean the student s learning is not real. Likewise, if an event like a trade show takes place in a virtual venue (one that is created and accessed online), the event is still very real some virtual events have attributes one might expect to find at an in-person event, including swag bags, hour-by-hour agendas, and exclusive opportunities for 1:1 interaction with fellow attendees.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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