The advent of computer-generated environments for simulating experience of the real world invites a reappraisal of the role of classical and neo-classical theories of computation (e.g. views of computation based on linguistic and logical frameworks).
To make more effective use of computers in connection with Virtual Reality requires a shift in emphasis towards computers as state representers rather than calculators, towards the construction and analysis of environments rather than documents and towards empirical rather than theoretical approaches to knowledge representation.
This paper discusses the prospects for gaining new insights into empirical activity through the systematic construction of models (typically - but not necessarily - computer based) in which real world state, as perceived by a particular agent, is imitated directly through the use of suitable metaphors. Such activity is exemplified in the construction of engineering models and the development and calibration of scientific instruments. A characteristic ingredient of the modelling processes involved in these applications is correlation of the results of experiments and observations that are performed in parallel in a real world environment and in the associated physical (e.g. computer) model.
Conventional computer programming paradigms are not well-suited for constructing models by empirical methods. Amongst widely used software tools, only spreadsheets are well adapted to imitating real world state as it is captured through observation and experiment. The philosophical ideas to be introduced in the paper have been developed in connection with practical case-studies and software tools that contribute to a long-term Empirical Modelling Project being pursued at the Computer Science Department at the University of Warwick. A key concept in this research programme is the development of agent-oriented models in which the dependencies between observables that are used for communication are specified using generalised spreadsheet principles.