3-D Theater More Than Gee-Whiz

Doors Opening to All Players

Look for yourself, and you can see signs of it almost everywhere: Geology is firmly entrenched in the virtual age.

Scattered across Houston -- and, increasingly, other locales as well -- state-of-the-art visualization centers are allowing geoscientists to literally step into the subsurface and explore its mysteries.

Talk about "downhole geology" - geologists are getting gee-whiz views of scenes they only could imagine before.

Like most cutting-edge technologies, major oil companies developed visual interpretation -- and the vast majority of visualization centers worldwide are housed in the hallowed halls of big oil.

However, specialized companies are now bringing the new technology to independents, offering visualization theaters, software and technical support for anybody with the "vision" to see the benefits of virtual reality.

"This technology was initially developed to help large oil companies who have a huge amount of data but not enough time to look at all the data and keep a project economical," said Michael Zeitlin, president and chief executive officer of Magic Earth, a relative new kid on the visualization block.

"But now that visualization techniques have evolved to the commercial stage, independents will benefit as much -- if not more -- than the major companies," he continued. "Visualization technology will allow smaller companies to play with the big boys."

Schlumberger, Veritas, Halliburton, Landmark and WesternGeco are just some of the commercial players boasting visualization centers.

Universities are part of the mix as well -- often, thanks to industry support, such as that given the new immersive virtual reality workroom at the University of Colorado in Boulder. That 7,800-square-foot, state-of-the-art visualization center was funded largely through an $11 million gift to the university by BP Amoco (a gift that includes hardware, software and intellectual property used by Arco's Visualization Technology group).

Landmark Graphics also is providing a $1 million grant in support of the CU center, who said in announcing the project, that they will work with the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University and similar programs at universities throughout the country "to explore the universe of immersive visualization."

And then there's Magic Earth, another example of major industry expertise filtering out into the independent sector. The company was formed by former Texaco scientists to further develop and market Texaco's 3-D visualization technology, GeoProbe. Texaco (soon to be Chevron-Texaco) retains a 25 percent share in the new company.

"Few independents can afford to build million dollar visualization theaters in-house," Zeitlin said, "(but) the cost of renting out a visualization center is affordable and offers all the same benefits. They can load their data into the visualization center's system and in less than a week they can come up with prospects.

"Companies spend large sums of money to acquire 3-D seismic data," he said, "and for just a few thousand dollars more this technology allows them to look at and analyze the data in a whole new way."

Please log in to read the full articledazyddabbuwfzadbzvycsxbrfwesztfyxwt

Look for yourself, and you can see signs of it almost everywhere: Geology is firmly entrenched in the virtual age.

Scattered across Houston -- and, increasingly, other locales as well -- state-of-the-art visualization centers are allowing geoscientists to literally step into the subsurface and explore its mysteries.

Talk about "downhole geology" - geologists are getting gee-whiz views of scenes they only could imagine before.

Like most cutting-edge technologies, major oil companies developed visual interpretation -- and the vast majority of visualization centers worldwide are housed in the hallowed halls of big oil.

However, specialized companies are now bringing the new technology to independents, offering visualization theaters, software and technical support for anybody with the "vision" to see the benefits of virtual reality.

"This technology was initially developed to help large oil companies who have a huge amount of data but not enough time to look at all the data and keep a project economical," said Michael Zeitlin, president and chief executive officer of Magic Earth, a relative new kid on the visualization block.

"But now that visualization techniques have evolved to the commercial stage, independents will benefit as much -- if not more -- than the major companies," he continued. "Visualization technology will allow smaller companies to play with the big boys."

Schlumberger, Veritas, Halliburton, Landmark and WesternGeco are just some of the commercial players boasting visualization centers.

Universities are part of the mix as well -- often, thanks to industry support, such as that given the new immersive virtual reality workroom at the University of Colorado in Boulder. That 7,800-square-foot, state-of-the-art visualization center was funded largely through an $11 million gift to the university by BP Amoco (a gift that includes hardware, software and intellectual property used by Arco's Visualization Technology group).

Landmark Graphics also is providing a $1 million grant in support of the CU center, who said in announcing the project, that they will work with the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University and similar programs at universities throughout the country "to explore the universe of immersive visualization."

And then there's Magic Earth, another example of major industry expertise filtering out into the independent sector. The company was formed by former Texaco scientists to further develop and market Texaco's 3-D visualization technology, GeoProbe. Texaco (soon to be Chevron-Texaco) retains a 25 percent share in the new company.

"Few independents can afford to build million dollar visualization theaters in-house," Zeitlin said, "(but) the cost of renting out a visualization center is affordable and offers all the same benefits. They can load their data into the visualization center's system and in less than a week they can come up with prospects.

"Companies spend large sums of money to acquire 3-D seismic data," he said, "and for just a few thousand dollars more this technology allows them to look at and analyze the data in a whole new way."

Start Spreading the News

Here's how the process works: Companies typically contract with the visualization firms and provide the data to build models that are loaded into the immersive visualization computer programs.

Oil companies can take advantage of these companies' experts, or bring in their own geoscientists to analyze and interpret the data.

The client also can come to the 3-D theater to work on projects or make presentations to management, partners or investors.

Roice Nelson, formerly chief visualization officer with Continuum Resources, said visualization companies must first ensure the industry is aware these stand-alone centers exist.

"I think we have done a reasonable job of that, at least in Houston," Nelson said. "Then we must show the industry the benefits that can be derived from using this new technology.

"Many managers view virtual reality as some gee-whiz game their kids play with," he said. "But the real purpose of virtual reality is to present data to users in a way that fits their natural comprehension of the world around them -- to make a virtual model of reality."

This helps, Nelson said, because "when you display all your data proportional to where it comes from in the subsurface you can see patterns. The human mind is able to identify automatically boundaries and forms and make predictions in terms of lithology, movement, fluids, and other issues.

"I would say the technology is becoming more widely known and accepted, but you always have those people who don't see the advantages," he added.

"Many see this technology as an extension of existing 3-D seismic interpretation systems, for instance, but immersive visualization pulls in all kinds of data -- everything from 3-D seismic volumes down to notes written on bits of paper years ago by people no longer with the company."

A 'Natural Extension'

Zeitlin agreed that visualization technology is more than just an extension of existing techniques.

"This technology is a paradigm change from the traditional way geoscientists work," he said. "It is a disruptive technology because it will force geologists and geophysicists to work differently."

And here's an added bonus, he said: Geologists have long been cartographers, drawing maps and cross sections. But immersive visualization will allow them to once again become geologists.

"Maps and cross sections are obsolete," Zeitlin said, "and I say that as a trained geologist. This technology allows us to work volumetrically. This technology has to grow. Young geologists coming into the industry have grown up playing virtual reality games. They are not looking to draw maps and cross sections.

"Visualization technology will be a natural extension for them."

The Entire Package

Once independents have determined the benefits of the virtual world, they can take advantage of the new centers. However, for the time being that means coming to Houston for geoscientists in other parts of the country.

"Before we can build facilities in other cities we must generate the demand," Zeitlin said. "It's a growth process."

For now, the technology is ahead of the demand.

"Although we've been very visible, the majority of our colleagues in the industry have just started hearing the buzz on us," Zeitlin said. "They're now in the process of kicking the tires and examining this new technology.

"But this time next year we expect to have an entire technical session at the AAPG annual convention on visualization interpretation techniques," he said. "We will move from the exhibit floor into the technical program as more people start asking for papers and work in this area.

"Courses will be taught on how to apply this technology."

Zeitlin said there are two segments to the visualization technology, and today industry at large is only becoming familiar with one facet -- the large visualization centers cropping up everywhere.

"That's only part of the story," he said. "The second area, which is much more valuable and important, is the software package.

"Today the industry is experiencing and experimenting with the big screens in a theater setting, which is great for collaboration," he continued. "But software that brings the technology to the desktop is vital - and that's what will leverage this technology for independents."

"The big theaters -- the ultimate immersive environments -- are at the top end and are wonderful for asset teams to extract knowledge quickly from complex heterogeneous data," said Dave Ridyard, chief operating officer of Continuum, "but they are equally wonderful for their ability to efficiently communicate this acquired knowledge to management, partners and investors."

Ridyard thinks there is a big market emerging for smaller conference room systems where members of an asset team can have democratic access to information.

"When they leave that conference room they need to be able to go back to their desktop computer and continue to work in the same kind of environment," he said. "The real challenge is scaleable solutions that will allow people to use one product all the way from the desktop through the conference room set up to the high-end theaters."

On a day-to-day basis it's just not practical for a team to go out to a theater -- and that's particularly true for independent companies and geologists.

"Size does matter -- geologists have known all along that it's better to make a wall-size cross section that you can step back from versus scaling it down to a piece of paper," Nelson said. "Large scale visualization does have a place in our ability to see patterns in the geology -- but you don't need them all the time.

"It's the software that brings visualization to the desktop that really leverages this new technology."

Ridyard believes that large scale immersive environments and integrated software present complex interdisciplinary models, the decision making process is "transformed from a sequence of solo activities to a true collaborative process."

"In today's global economy, the collaborators could be in the next office, or half way around the world," he said.

"The next wave of immersive virtual reality software must also address the specific needs for partners and service providers to collaborate between users scattered around the world - often with vastly differing hardware configurations."

Programmed to Succeed

Magic Earth's software program and the package planned for fall release by Continuum Resources both allow geoscientists to apply visualization at their workstation.

Zeitlin and Ridyard said training is a relatively simple matter.

"If we write the software right, you won't have to learn the software because you will have learned it all your life as you learned how to explore the world around you," Ridyard said. "That's why we're putting a lot of work into issues like speech recognition. We think it's a real barrier to understanding if you have to know which command to pull down from a menu to get another menu to bring up a window to ask the computer a question.

"If we use virtual reality right, the whole training issue goes away."

Nelson said Continuum hasn't defined all the aspects of training for its software, but he's watched the guys in the office -- from geotechs to advanced geophysicists -- all find that within a couple of weeks "they are able to get data into the environment and make things work."

You may also be interested in ...