the world’s most advanced virtual-reality system, geologists
can find oil by donning 3-D goggles and entering an immersible chamber
at a new research center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The BP Center for Visualization opened at the university
in late October with a $10.6 million grant from BP.
The center’s virtual-reality chamber consists
of three 12-foot screens that can project images of oil fields —
or the inner workings of human cells, for that matter, because while
it allows geologists to view underground oil fields in 3-D, the
center offers applications in the aerospace, medical, urban planning
and military fields as well.
On those screens are 3-D images that change as users
wearing special battery-powered glasses walk around the space.
Geoff Dorn, executive director, recently demonstrated
the visualization technology for some CU students and faculty who
donned the 3-D goggles and immersed themselves in the virtual-reality
chamber — and wondered, how does it work?
"We can calculate the optimum viewpoint for your head,"
Dorn said during the demonstration. "We also track your head position.
The system has tracking sensors in it."
All of which helps users to see and interpret the
data. For geoscientists, perhaps it's seismic data — and for the
trained eye, perhaps that data is giving the clues for exploration
The chamber measures 12 by 12 by 10 feet — "It can
fit six people inside comfortably," Dorn said — and each of the
12-foot screens cost about $10,000. The simulations are powered
by two supercomputers worth nearly $5 million.
"The chamber has a unique corner design with a very
tight seam that disappears in the visualization process," he said.
"You can walk through a fault plane and interpret a salt dome —
you can interact with data with the same tools that you interact
with the real world."
And if you want to view data at a lower angle? Just
stoop down and looks in that direction.
The chamber can be easily reconfigured from a square
shape to open up for a theater seating environment to accommodate
groups or classes of up to 20 or 30 people — it's one of about
eight systems of its kind now in existence.
"One person can reconfigure it in five minutes from
a fully immersible environment to a theater," he said.
The center can accommodate visiting scientists as
well as graduate students.
Housed in the university’s old Nuclear Physics
Lab, which was built in the 1950s, the center covers about 7,800
square feet of space, said Jim Bryant, the center’s business
When BP acquired Arco in 2000, BP recognized the value
of Arco's visualization technology. Although it considered spinning
that aspect of the business off as a separate company, officials
eventually decided to donate the division to a university for further
The University of Colorado was one of several schools
with strong oil and gas programs to bid for the project, teaming
up with Lockheed Martin’s office in Denver to bid for the project.
"Our strength was that we wanted to provide several
disciplines," Bryant said, adding that the center does indeed "have
a very strong aerospace program."
When BP awarded the program to CU, it came along with
a $10.6 million grant of hardware, software, intellectual property,
a technical team and seed money to help the program become self-sustaining
over a three-year period.
That grant included $1 million to renovate the old
Nuclear Physics Lab building. Landmark Corp. also donated $1 million
for the renovation.
Six team members from Arco's offices in Plano, Texas,
relocated to Boulder, including Dorn, who holds a bachelor’s
degree in astrophysics and a master’s degree in geology from
the University of New Mexico, plus a Ph.D. in exploration geophysics
from the University of California at Berkeley.
Dorn joined Arco in 1980 and spent time in seismic
acquisition research. Later he directed the company’s interactive
interpretation research group and pursued research interests in
3-D seismic horizon and volume attribute analysis and 3-D visualization.
He began serving as director of Arco's visualization
technology group in 1997.
An AAPG member, Dorn’s interests include 3-D
visualization, 3-D seismic interpretation, attribute analysis and
geophysical reservoir characterization.
The center now employs seven people, and plans to
eventually add to that number — including the hiring of grad students.
Initially, the center has been focusing on visualization
research and development work mostly for the oil and gas industry,
he said, but the center also is planning to commercialize some intellectual
"There were several pieces that were donated through
BP." Dorn said. "We’ll work with commercial outlets to make
Currently the center is working on an Immersive Drilling
Planner, a software application that could become available commercially
sometime this year, Byrant said.
The planner is a fully integrated immersive visualization
tool for planning and updating well paths and platforms in relation
to 3-D geophysical and geological data. The interactivity can greatly
speed up planning and reduce well collision risk.
The software tool is designed to perform platform
and well planning in an immersive environment. It can operate in
a spatially immersive environment, large flat or curved screen systems,
immersive bench displays and desktop workstations. Future versions
may run on NT-based PCs.
The center also is involved in several federal grant
proposals for visualization technologies, he said, as well as an
evaluation project for Lockheed for space structures.
And, of course, it is continuing research and development
work with BP and other companies.
"No one is doing exactly what we’re doing,"
Byrant said, referring to the multidiscipline nature of its research.
"It’s one of the most sophisticated environments around."