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What is Computer Simulation?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 16, 2024
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Computer simulation has three meanings. Computer simulation can refer to a computer program that simulates an abstract model so that it can be studied and analyzed. It can also refer to a 3D computer graphics model made to represent a three-dimensional object through the use of specialized software. Finally, computer simulation can refer to the practice called emulation in which the functions of a particular system are reproduced on a second system.

A computer model, also known as a computational model, is a computer simulation widely used in the sciences and social sciences as an extension of mathematical modeling. A computer simulation of this type creates a sampling of representative outcomes or sequences of events in situations in which playing out all possible consequences of the model is prohibitive, and the models may be more or less abstract. Computer models are used in biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as economics and psychology. The typology of computer models categorizes them based on a set of four variables. Are they stochastic or deterministic? steady-state or dynamic? continuous or discrete? local or distributed?

Computer simulations in the form of 3D models are used in health care, the sciences, architecture, and most popularly, in motion pictures, computer games, and video games. Most 3D models take one of two approaches. On the one hand, they may show an object as a solid, defining it by its volume. The alternative is to show the boundary or shell of an object. This is the predominant model for games and film.

3D models may be formed in different ways. Like some learn-to-draw books, they can be based entirely on very basic geometric shapes. While the drawing books use circles, squares, triangles, and other 2D models, the computer modeling would use balls, cubes, and pyramids, for example. This style of modeling is called primitives because it is restricted to using primitive or fundamental shapes.

There are three other types of model formation. One is NURBS (Nonuniform rational B-spline), which was originated by two engineers who worked for French automobile manufacturers, Pierre Bézier and Paul de Casteljau. Bézier’s choice to publish his work resulted in his name being closely associated with the curves. NURBS are used in computer-aided design (CAD) programs, as well as programs for manufacturing, engineering, and animation.

Splines and patches modeling is similar to NURBS, with the surface being defined by curved lines. Polygonal modeling forms a polygonal mesh by using line segments to connect vertices. They are used in many 3D models, but can only approximate curved surfaces, because each polygon is planar.

The type of computer simulation known as emulation can allow one device to imitate another. This is useful, for example, in the case in which a particular computer peripheral brand has market dominance, and peripherals from other brands can emulate the dominant device for ease of use. Software emulators to run Apple software on other platforms and Windows software on Apple Macintosh computers is another use for this type of modeling.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for EasyTechJunkie, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon160714 — On Mar 16, 2011

I'm currently taking a computer course on computer modelling and for my project I need to come up with a deterministic model. My limitations are graphics (I am currently taking a computer graphics course but I am terrible in that course), so please people, what ideas can you please throw at me. Thanks!

By youbiKan — On Oct 11, 2010

I think that while some commenters on this article have serious concerns about human perception of false realities the truth is that creating computer simulation systems is extremely difficult and it will be a long time before science is capable of producing a similar experience to real life.

Rest assured. False reality will not take over reality someday soon but it will happen eventually. When it does, well all I can say is, welcome to the Twilight Zone.

By NightChef — On Oct 11, 2010

I would be truly surprised if anyone could actually confuse real life with reality. I know that humans can be deceived but I think it would take seriously advanced technology to actually overcome the natural tolerance and perception of humans in this world. Maybe someday the technology will be available but it's pretty far off right now.

By IceCarver — On Oct 11, 2010

Computer simulations are a false reality and we should never confuse them with what is real. Just like our discouragement of living in a book or dream, people need to realize that just because you can fool your senses into thinking something is really doesn't mean that you have to believe it.

It is actually a dangerous concept to ever want to blur the lines between reality and fiction that much. If a computer simulation is ever actually capable of fooling reality that much then I think it should be outlawed.

There are so many different movies, books and short stories about what happens when we blur the lines between reality and computer simulations I never want that to be real in my world.

By sammyG — On Oct 11, 2010

I think someday that the technology that creates computer simulations will become so advanced that we won't even need real life training. Of course it will take a while until we can get to that level but when we do we will know we have achieved everything our TV dreams of childhood could imagine.

I mean, who hasn't thought about what it would be like to have a holograph deck like they have in Startrek? What amazing technology that is available. Someday we can actually meet our characters of history that made such an impression on us. It may not actually be them but it could be the closest thing that computer simulation has to offer.

Simulation modeling will someday catch up with real life and when that day comes, reality will be indescribable.

By fitness234 — On Oct 11, 2010

I have always been fascinated with the computer simulations for pilots that help them train. These flight simulators can be varied on a variety of levels but there is a significant difference between what is available on the consumer market and what professional flight schools provide.

Maybe it is a good thing that we have such a discrepency in ability for students to use simulators but then again we wouldn't want everyone in the world knowing how to fly an airplane, especially if it isn't safe.

I think that as amazing as these devices may be and the sophistication of hardware might really exist, there is still a barrier that must be overcome until we can allow experience that they provide to a wider audience.

By FootballKing — On Oct 11, 2010

You can simulate many types of situations in a computer model and even some things can be done so with a relative simplicity that most variables are actually accounted for but the reality is that computers have a very far way to go to be reliable in prediction.

The human factor has yet to be digitalized and because of that fact there is always an automatic concern I have when dealing with computer simulations.

Computer simulation methods have improved and there is always ongoing progress being made in universities and colleges but there is no doubt still a gap that exists when dealing with reality and fiction in a digital form.

For some reason it is hard to interpret the realities of everyday into ones and zeros that the binary language of computers relies on. Weather prediction is getting easier and science is making progress in certain areas but it seems that there is such a long way until we can rely on these computer models for our personal safety.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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