Despite the angst, there's nothing like rock bottom oil and gas prices to spur oil patch players to devise increasingly creative and esoteric methods to conduct business more efficiently and economically.
Indeed, they're now latching onto some "other-world" type technology that's already having a positive impact on the bottom line at a number of companies.
Want to take a walk through the subsurface and design that next well from inside the reservoir?
How about listening to your well logs to hear what they might be trying to tell you?
It's all in a day's work in the hi-tech immersive 3-D visualization centers that are sprouting over the industry landscape, following relatively longtime usage in the automotive and space industries.
Until now, geoscientists have had to be content to view 3-D data in the 2-D environment of a computer screen, which prohibits natural interaction with the data. At the visualization facilities coming into vogue today, however, supercomputers create realistic, interactive environments where mulitdisciplinary teams and others can congregate to experience spatial relationships and interrelationships among data in immersive 3-D environments.
Early on, virtual reality became synonymous with headmounted displays, which were developed by NASA. But even though this provides an "other worldly" experience, the wires and weight make these headsets awkward to use and inhibit the immersive experience.
"You need to be unencumbered when you're in the environment, and you also need to immerse yourself in more than just the visual," said Roice Nelson, chief visualization officer at Continuum Resources, which is the first commercial immersion environment (IE) to be launched.
Indeed, in a true IE like Continuum offers, intimacy with the data attains new heights. Via voice recognition, the user can talk to the computer. A head tracking device lets it know what you're looking at, and a joy stick enables you to "fly" through a field, interrogating recognizable objects to obtain information, such as producing rates, temperatures and pressures.
In other words, the computer is being trained to work with humans instead of vice versa.
Nelson, who was the initial founder of Landmark Graphics, talks about plenty of ongoing esoteric research in the immersion arena. Continuum, for instance, is investigating auditory applications, among others.
"If you assign different voices that sound like, say, wind or breath, to velocity and density well logs and listen to both at the same time," he said, "you're in effect listening to acoustic impedence."
Aside from the wow factor, there's good reason to view this technology -- just as the oil finders did 3-D seismic -- as a saving grace in an industry beleaguered by volatile (read low) commodity prices, continuing layoffs and the like.
There's an air of urgency to decrease cycle time, increase reserves and improve production, i.e. get things out of the ground faster.
"As the industry contracts, each geoscientist must do an increasing amount of work and make faster decisions, and these immersive visualization environments allow more people to see more of the available data at once, which results in better decisions in less time," said Tracy Stark, principle geophysicist at Arco.
He noted that collaboration among the different disciplines in these environments is one of the major benefits.
The cost for one of these facilities can range from as much as a few million dollars down to less than $100,000, according to Nelson. The lower end assumes the user already has NT® with new graphics and will need a projector and stereo glasses, and probably will front project onto a white wall.
The IE at Arco is similar to a Pyramid CAVE™ (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) or a MechDyne SSVR (Surround Screen Virtual Reality) environment. A Silicon Graphics Onyx 2 Infinite Reality Monster with multiple graphics pipes drives a series of projectors to produce displays onto three walls and the floor, and sensors are used to track the head and hands of the user.
All display surfaces are flat at ARCO. Dual-curve screens are used in the Visionarium™ environments at Texaco and Exxon and the single-curve screen is at the Decisionarium™ facility at Landmark.
"The images on the screen are drawn from a particular perspective, and the main difference between the Visionarium/Decisionarium and what we do in the CAVE is we dynamically change that perspective," Stark said. "All systems have a visual sweet spot where everything looks good, but as you move away you get artifacts.
"With the tracking devices, the images we show change depending on where you are in the room and where you're looking," he explained, "so as you move it's as if the geology stays stationary and you're moving through it."
The Arco facility has been in use for a couple of years -- and even with all of the industry downsizing, they're currently going to the expense of upgrading the system.
"The physical size will increase from a 10 x 10-foot floor with 10-foot high walls, or screens, to a 12 x 12- foot floor with the 10-foot walls, and the side wall screens will be moveable through a 60 degree arc," Stark said.
"So in about an hour we can go from a fully immersive environment to one that is more presentation-like."
Unlike the curved screen environments, most flat screen systems employ rear projection, which prevents the viewers from casting shadows that occlude the projected images. This is particularly important when an up-close inspection of an image is needed by a team.
Some IE users, however, think this is a relative non-issue and consider the Visionarium to be a more useful visualization environment.
"The CAVE has less useable space so you can accommodate only a few people at a time, and with a big screen system you don't need goggles to see what you need to see," said Micheal Zeitlin, Texaco fellow and manager for Texaco's visualization effort, which now boasts five IE facilities.
"The motion on the screen as you rotate things gives you the stereoscopic feel," he continued.
He noted, however, that an advantage of the goggles is that objects need not be moved to get the stereo effect.
Zeitlin cited another plus of using the big curved screen immersive environment vs. the CAVE to be the lack of a need for tracking devices to provide a meaningful virtual reality experience in terms of improving business. Currently, tracking is limited essentially to one person at a time.
Fast, Faster, Fastest
Whatever the chosen IE, the benefits already demonstrated from using the technology are impressive.
Zeitlin said that without exception, work that ordinarily would take a few weeks now can be accomplished in a couple of days, and they're already seeing drilling successes from the more than 80 projects already completed using the Visionarium.
"The key for us to justify the expense was cycle time reduction," he said, "and we're already there."
While conceding the technology in itself is not a magic bullet, Zeitlin considers it to be a "just in the nick of time thing."
"Prices are back up now," he said, "but there are fewer people than before, and the technology gives us a way to keep our profitability."
Stark described an experience with partners who arrived at the Arco offices to decide on well locations but with decidedly different interpretations of the geology.
"They had planned it would take two weeks," he explained, "but after the first morning we went to the facility to show why we decided to put the wells where they were, and after only two hours they said, 'we're done.'" He said the first of the wells is slated to go down this summer.
For those folks who have yet to have a work experience in one of these facilities, Nelson perhaps draws the most simplistic yet dramatic picture to describe the impact this technology can have on the E&P industry.
"As explorers, we build pictures in our minds," he said, "and good oil finders must communicate these pictures to each other and also to management to make big money decisions. So if I can build a picture in three dimensions so people can walk around and see the picture in my mind, I have a better chance.
"It provides an opportunity for every geoscientist to be a world class communicator."
And that world just keeps getting smaller.
Transcontinental team collaboration in real time looms as a highly effective way to reduce costs and expedite decision-making. Teams from Landmark and Statoil recently demonstrated an intercontinental collaborative effort between Houston and Stavanger while planning a wellbore in real time.
Low cost ISDN communications technology was used to connect the two immersive 3-D visualization environments that shared a common 3-D view of all of the necessary data.
Perhaps even more telling of just how revolutionary this technology can be is its potential to make maps obsolete.
Before you gasp, consider the cognitive distance that exists between a map and an understanding of the map.
This technology reduces that cognitive distance so anyone can understand spatial relationships without understanding maps.