Look for yourself, and you can see
signs of it almost everywhere: Geology is firmly entrenched in the
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
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
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
"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
Oil companies can take advantage of these companies'
experts, or bring in their own geoscientists to analyze and interpret
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
"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
"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."