Virtual worlds and the altered reality of physics

A couple of years ago, we published a report on Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business: Impacts on the U.S. Economy, Jobs, and Industrial Competitiveness. The report described how virtual worlds could streamline and shorten design and testing of new products, improve training and learning, and provide important new ways to involve consumers in product design, performance, and after-sales support (see earlier posting). Virtual worlds are already being used in the collaborative design process (see for example our earlier posting).
For the most part, virtual worlds simulate the real world. For example, the laws of physics generally apply. In part, this is what makes virtual worlds such a powerful tool for innovation as we described in the report. Parts of an engine being assembled in a virtual world have to fit together the way they would in the real world. Virtual patients have to react to injuries and treatment as real people would. Others wise the simulation loses its value.
However, as a new article in MIT’s Technology Review explains, those laws of physics can be re-written in virtual worlds. The article (“Experiments in Second Life Reveal Alternative Laws of Physics”) describes how the ability to change the laws of physics in virtual worlds can be a powerful research and education tool. Alternative theories can be tested. Students can gain a greater understanding of the laws of physics by making modifications. Besides, it is just plain cool.
The tool is not without issues. As the full paper (upon which the article is based) explains, “implementation of simulations in SL [Second Life] is not without drawbacks like the lack of experience many teachers have with programming and the differences found between SL Physics and Newtonian Physics. Despite of that, findings suggest it may possible for teachers to overcome these obstacles.” Specifically the paper recommends a more user-friendly interface for builders of simulations.
As we noted in our Virtual Worlds report, government policies can encourage the development of innovative training programs that educate businesses and employees about how to use these technologies and integrate them into traditional disciplines. Research and teaching of physics is clearly one of the areas that could benefit from such programs.


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