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Virtual Reality Brings the Mountain to the Geologist

Claudia Ruiz-Graham moves the computer mouse over an outcrop model — an image she likely never would have gotten if it hadn’t been for a drone snapping photos.

It’s part of a video about Ruiz-Graham’s startup company, Imaged Reality, which uses virtual reality — a computer-replicated environment — to map and examine sites.

And now, Ruiz-Graham is using it to help find oil.

Using the 3D Gaia application that Ruiz-Graham designed and a developer created (which launched at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in London last month), users can fly virtually anywhere on the Earth.

“The app virtualized digital outcrop models,” she said. “It also has tools that allow the user to interpret the digital outcrops directly in virtual reality. As the outcrop is virtualized, you can experience the outcrop at real scale, you can walk along it or you can fly over it.”

Because the replicated environment is at real scale, it creates a fully immersive experience, she said.

“The app also integrates Google Earth, so you can virtually fly anywhere in the planet. It also integrates subsurface data, such as geological maps and seismic and well-log images,” she said.

The digital outcrop models are generated from images using drones, she said.

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Claudia Ruiz-Graham moves the computer mouse over an outcrop model — an image she likely never would have gotten if it hadn’t been for a drone snapping photos.

It’s part of a video about Ruiz-Graham’s startup company, Imaged Reality, which uses virtual reality — a computer-replicated environment — to map and examine sites.

And now, Ruiz-Graham is using it to help find oil.

Using the 3D Gaia application that Ruiz-Graham designed and a developer created (which launched at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in London last month), users can fly virtually anywhere on the Earth.

“The app virtualized digital outcrop models,” she said. “It also has tools that allow the user to interpret the digital outcrops directly in virtual reality. As the outcrop is virtualized, you can experience the outcrop at real scale, you can walk along it or you can fly over it.”

Because the replicated environment is at real scale, it creates a fully immersive experience, she said.

“The app also integrates Google Earth, so you can virtually fly anywhere in the planet. It also integrates subsurface data, such as geological maps and seismic and well-log images,” she said.

The digital outcrop models are generated from images using drones, she said.

For example, at Durdle Door, a limestone arch on the Jurassic Coast near Lulworth in Dorset, England, a user can circle around the cliff, viewing it in 3-D.

Test Flight

Ruiz-Graham came up with the idea following the downturn in the industry. She noticed lots of layoffs and companies reducing the number of trips to the field.

“I came across some video footage from drones at a drone film festival in London,” she said. “There was a particular film that showed some of the Norwegian fjords from above that look spectacular. You could see beautiful fracture systems,” she said.

So she thought that the ability to see geologic features from above, but also up close, as is only possible with drones, would give new insights from geological sites.

“I bought myself a drone. I learned how to create 3-D models using drone-mapping software, and created the Durdle Door model that you see. It was just beautiful,” she said.

Ruiz-Graham first came across virtual reality as a concept through news clips, she said. She thought she could create geologic field trips if she was able to bring 3-D outcrop models from drones inside virtual reality.

If people were not going to the mountains, she said, she could bring the mountains to them. She met her developer and the two started working together on the project.

As for the design, she said a key requirement was that the app should be able to reproduce high-resolution outcrop models. “If high quality was preserved inside virtual reality, then it would work,” she said. “We did several trials until we got it right.”

The first time she saw the high-resolution Durdle Door model inside 3D Gaia was very special for her, she said.

“It just looked spectacular,” she added.

Expanding the Tool Box

Another aim for her was to create tools that allowed her to do as a geologist what she couldn’t do in the field, like drawing her interpretation directly over the outcrop or flying off the cliff. “I also wanted tools that allowed me to integrate subsurface data, so we built the seismic and well images viewer and the geomap that allows us to see geological maps in KML files,” she explained.

Another key requirement was the ability to see satellite images inside virtual reality. The developer integrated Google Earth into the app, allowing users to fly over satellite images anywhere in the world.

Ruiz-Graham said she believes using such virtual reality will help increase team performance.

“Because this is very visual and you’re really inside the image, as I said, I can fly, I can see the outcrop from very different locations. It’s something that stays in your memory,” she said.

It’s also helpful preparation before a field trip. Users can learn about the destination through virtual reality and have a better understanding of the location once they are on site, she said.

It also allows everyone on the team to experience the location, as most field trips are limited in the number of people who take part.

“Usually you can’t bring your entire team to the field,” she said. “This way it creates a collaborative environment. You can access hard-to-reach areas that may be too expensive to get to. I can get as close to the outcrop as I want.”

Another advantage to using virtual reality is knowledge capture, she said.

“When going to the field we take our notebook and video, but we are not able to repeat the experience. But with virtual reality you can,” she said.

However, she’s a firm believer that virtual reality should not replace field trips.

“I’m not saying virtual reality will replace field trips or should replace field trips, but it can open the possibility of more people seeing them. Not everyone gets to see the field. It opens the possibility to more people,” she said.

She notes a few drawbacks to the technology, such as not being able to touch the rocks.

Still, she believes it’s a tool that will help workers become more effective.

“I think it’s going to make people learn better and have better ways of collaboration,” she said.

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