VR Chamber Expands View

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Using 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 success.

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.

Image Caption

VR Chamber, 3-D Goggles
Graphics courtesy of BP Center for Visualization

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Using 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 success.

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.

Valuable Versatility

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 development manager.

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 research.

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.

Branching Out

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 property.

"There were several pieces that were donated through BP." Dorn said. "We’ll work with commercial outlets to make them available."

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."

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