Three-dimensional computer visualization has grown beyond the "gee whiz" stage, according to Jim Thomson of BP in Houston.
It is becoming a workaday tool with potential impact in virtually all areas of the petroleum business, he said.
To illustrate the state of the art, Thomson has assembled several presentations for two special AAPG-sponsored sessions at the [PFItemLinkShortcode|id:41204|type:standard|anchorText:Offshore Technology Conference|cssClass:|title:Program Focuses On Geohazards|PFItemLinkShortcode] May 2-5 in Houston. Thomson's co-chair is Manuel Poupon of Shell International E&P.
Thomson said the goal of the session is to show how multiple workers in the petrotechnical world are using visualization to understand multiple data types. The tools help speed progress and communicate to diverse audiences, he said.
"We wanted to show the business impact of visualization -- it's not just a parlor trick," he said.
"Visualization, especially with motion, speeds up comprehension of complex geospatial relationships," he added.
Thomson said he sees the business impact of visualization in his work as a geohazards specialist.
"It helps shorten times for installations, enhance planning cycles for drilling exploratory and appraisal wells and avoid downtime," he said. "We can present data and train all the workers on a well and show them areas to be avoided.
"You could do this in the past with maps, of course," he said. "But in a 3-D environment, you can rotate the data and show it to a multidisciplinary audience -- scientists, techs and business-oriented types -- and they can 'get it' in a very rapid time frame."
Thomson noted that one presenter, Bob Curtis of Oceaneering International, "can do virtual installation of all the hardware involved in a deepwater producer in the Gulf of Mexico," and likened it to using a simulator for driver training.
"You can do it all 'virtually' until the guy really knows how it all fits together," he said.
The presentation includes solid numbers on how the technology has helped speed installation times, save money and reduce or eliminate injuries, Thomson said.
Presenter Kerry Key of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is "a good example of the academic world, which is often on the leading edge of technology," Thomson said. "He is taking marine electromagnetic data and combining it with seismic, merging them and seeing the relationships."
According to Thomson, presenters provide a good representation of major companies, academia and vendors.
"It's a good mix," he noted. "It shows interest across the whole spectrum of the petrotechnical industry -- not just engineering, but geology and economics, often all together co-rendered in the same scene ... so that relationships can be quickly grasped."
Anybody Can Play
Thomson said the technology really began to take off in the late 1990s with big-budget companies who could hire visualization specialists and spend $500,000 to $1 million to build a visualization room with large computers and special hardware and software.
"I just read about a company that's focusing on academics," he said. "For about $10,000, a PC with dual output video card, software and glasses and you can be in the 3-D visualization world."
In the late 1990s, BP and Landmark built a "highly immersive visualization environment, or 'visionarium,'" Thomson said. Psychology experts were hired to demonstrate the effectiveness of having diverse audiences together in a small, darkened theater with curved screen.
"In the dark, nobody's wearing the bars and badges to say whose the general," he said. "It's an equalizer. Anybody can call out a question."
The progression of 3-D technology in the petroleum industry "has been fascinating," Thomson said.
"In the petrotechnical word, it's 'real'; also in pipeline and business. You can map the flow of energy trades or show the impact of weather systems on the energy process," he said.
"It's just a matter of who's going to think of the next direction to take this and expand it."
While theaters will still serve a purpose, Thomson sees entry into the 3-D realm becoming more affordable as continuing advances make hardware faster and cheaper. More flexible and affordable software also will help move 3-D from the visionarium to the desktop.
He said he totes visualization tools to conferences and meetings with regulators. "I can bring information up on a PC to show the impact of what they're doing and stress safety."
According to Thomson, the format -- and the OTC sessions themselves -- are significant.
"Having two special sessions is unusual," he noted. "It's a flag that SEG (session co-sponsor), OTC and AAPG are recognizing the importance of this technology."
Thomson said OTC officials agreed to relax some requirements to allow the live, "fly-through" format for the presentations. Instead of a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation, perhaps with a bit of video, presenters will show how they work with data day-to-day using a computer and large screen projection.
"They can change the data, fly around it and let the audience really grasp it in a 3-D sense," he said.
Also, speakers this year have the option of making their presentations in 3-D stereo mode. Paradigm Geophysical agreed to supply glasses, similar to those used in Imax movie theaters, to allow audience members to view the screen in 3-D.
The format is similar to the first session Thomson chaired on the topic at last year's OTC.
"In most 'normal' sessions, you saw a speaker, a small table and a staffer hitting a button on cue to change slides," he said. "We had what looked like a TV production studio with multiple computers and digital and analog recording capturing the speakers and the projections.
"Twenty-five years ago you saw people using overheads, then slides, then PowerPoint. Many conferences today will only accept PowerPoint," he said. "In our opinion, the next phase will be live, fly-through dynamic presentations."
OTC officials waived a requirement for formal manuscripts from the session's presenters to allow more interactive presentations. Instead, the presentations will be recorded and made available in video format on the Internet.
"OTC has worked very effectively for many years and the system works very well," Thomson said. "It took a little bit of crunching to put the two formats together, but it worked."