Don't chew off
all your fingernails worrying about the uncertainty of
a steady crude oil supply from the Middle East. Save a few to nibble
on while you ponder the long-term threat of depleted global oil
reserves, which has the potential to wreak havoc with modern lifestyles.
About 50 countries, including the United States,
already have passed their point of peak oil output, according to
the Oil Depletion Analysis Center in London, indicating there's
good reason for angst.
Even so, talk of depletion triggers a yawn among
the critics who say there's oil aplenty for decades to come, not
to mention an anticipated endless supply of new technical gizmos
to kick out whatever production is needed. The believers, however,
raise their collective brows as they contemplate the plethora of
aging hydrocarbon-producing regions worldwide.
Look, for instance, at Norway, the world's third
largest crude oil exporter.
The country exported 3.1 million barrels daily in
the year 2000. Yet while the resource base has expanded considerably
in the last several years, according to the Norwegian Petroleum
Directorate (NPD), the agency anticipates production will top out
between 2002 and 2005.
This should come as no surprise since about 75 percent
of the country's production is from the North Sea, which is a rapidly
maturing hydrocarbon province.
The harsh deepwater environments of this region always
have called for cutting-edge drilling technology. Maturing fields
and complex geology present their own set of demands.
Fortunately, oil industry operators have a knack
for meeting challenges head-on, and 30-plus-year North Sea operating
veteran Norsk Hydro has been busy doing its part to keep the wells
going down and the production flowing.
High among its accomplishments is the development
of some innovative technology that meets a range of needs, running
the gamut from improved recovery in old fields to new exploration.
In 1996, the company began researching virtual reality
technology as a method to bring added value to the E&P business.
The following year, it teamed with Christian Michelsen Research
in Bergen to develop a virtual reality software application that
ultimately would be dubbed "Inside Reality."
A note of caution: don't confuse it with the now-commonplace,
high-end 3-D visualization applications used in the industry. We're
talking a whole different breed-of-cat.
Both tools can be used in various physical environments,
such as flat wall, curved screen, CAVE, etc., but the similarity
ends there for the most part. The combination of large screens,
stereo display and the type of user interface employed by Inside
Reality enable extreme immersion not previously possible, according
to Mons Midttun, who was project manager at Norsk Hydro throughout
the R&D phase of the technology.
This exceptional immersion gives users the sense
of actually "being inside" the data, he said.
In place of the usual mouse and keyboard, interaction
between users and the data occurs via intuitive gestures like walking,
pointing, grabbing and drawing, e.g., using virtual chalk to draw
a well path directly onto the data.
In other words, the users interact with the 3-D objects
being displayed using a 3-D interface rather than 2-D.
"It's crucial to have a really good application to
use for virtual reality," said Jens Grimsgaard, virtual reality
project leader-geophysics at Norsk Hydro Oil & Energy Research
Center. "That's why we think it's significant that Inside Reality
was developed within an oil company instead of by a software vendor.
We know the software has been given the correct input and matured
over time — much like a fine wine, you might say."
All In the Timing
Even though the tool is now coming into its own for
exploration and is being honed for eventual use in reservoir simulation,
it has proven to be most valuable thus far to streamline the drilling
and production process.
"Early in the research, we found this tool was very
applicable to well planning and geosteering," Midttun said, "and
we brought in the business unit guys who drill and produce the wells
to take part in the research project."
Once the viability of the technology had been documented
in the field, Norsk Hydro spun off a separate company in order to
turn the research project into a commercial offering and to ensure
dissemination of the technology throughout its own organization.
Earlier this year Schlumberger Information Solutions
(SIS) acquired the new company ("Inside Reality") where Midttun
now fills the role of marketing manager. The game plan is for SIS
to continue development.
The software application now boasts a track record
for well planning, dating back to 1998 when the prototype was implemented
at Troll, the highest producing oil field in the Norwegian offshore
North Sea sector. Lying west of the giant Troll gas field, the field
is an upper Jurassic reservoir unit consisting of sands deposited
in a shallow marine delta and characterized by sequences of upward-coarsening
sandstone units that are produced by horizontal wells.
"All 50 producing wells at Troll were planned with
virtual reality," Grimsgaard said, "and the turnaround time for
well planning was reduced from two-to-three weeks to one-to-two
"With Troll operating four rigs, time is crucial,"
he added, "but the success wasn't just in the time, but in drilling
more optimal and profitable wells."
"North Sea wells start at maybe $10 million and just
go upwards," Midttun said, "so if you can achieve increased reservoir
penetration of just a few percent, which leads to increasing production
by a few percent, it has a tremendous impact on the business."
The Team Approach
Norsk Hydro's activity at Oseberg Field, offshore
Norway's western coast, is a case in point.
After 10 years of production, Oseberg went into decline
in 1998 and became the focus of an improved oil recovery program.
Using Inside Reality in a CAVE, the Norsk Hydro team determined
the straight well path, which was suggested in the initial proposal
for the first well in the program, would not accomplish maximum
A new well path was designed interactively in the
CAVE, and the horizontal leg of the well encountered 65 percent
oil-filled sand. The average for other nearby wells in the same
middle-Jurassic Ness formation is 35 percent.
For eight wells drilled at Oseberg following implementation
of the virtual reality application in 2000, the Research Center
at Norsk Hydro reported 100 days of saved time along with added
income of $86 million owing to increased penetration of the complex
fluvial channel reservoir sands and the ensuing increased production.
The system is now standard for planning and geosteering Oseberg
Today, the company is applying the technology at
all its fields in the production phase in the North Sea and has
trained 150 geoscientists in its use, according to Midttun.
Besides the several centers, which currently are
running the Inside Reality application in Norway, Norsk Hydro recently
installed a center at its new Houston office to support its activities
in the Gulf of Mexico
'A Whole New Way'
In today's industry with the oil finders scattered
worldwide, collaboration afforded through such technologies as virtual
reality is more important than ever before.
Despite the advances made in this area over the past
few years, however, the Holy Grail of collaboration, i.e., to work
with the data interactively from geographically separate locales
worldwide, has long eluded the technology whizzes.
But "Hello, Baku … do you see what I see?" may
no longer be just a dream.
An example is SGI's Vizserver software, which is
in the final stage of beta testing. According to SGI, it's been
proven to be capable of surmounting the earlier obstacles to remote
collaboration, i.e., the expense and scarcity of adequate broadband
"Vizserver is part of our Visual Area Networking
strategy where we connect people remotely to a decision-making process,"
said Bill Bartling, director global energy solutions at SGI. "We
collect data in the applications and make that application space
available to anyone in the organization to participate wherever
"Most companies have access to T-1 or
better area networks, which are more than adequate to run Vizserver
technology," he continued, "and we designed the software to take
advantage of what currently exists."
"Using one of the early versions, we did a demo across
the ocean," Bartling said, "showing a T-1 line had the ability to
have a shared graphical image running on a super computer in London
being shown interactively in Mountain View."
Meanwhile, Norsk Hydro is continuing to research
and implement its own brand of long distance collaboration.
"I can work with a colleague, say, in Oslo and see
him as a shadow, or avatar, in a CAVE as though we were together,"
Grimsgaard said. "We hear each other through wireless microphones
and can pass controls back and forth to open new objects.
"Instead of pushing images, we duplicate the data
bases so we're only sending objects," he said. "Only a small amount
of information is actually being transported.
"Right now, we're working over our intranet, or WAN
(wide area network)," Grimsgaard noted, "but the Internet is next."
A quick look at what's on the drawing board shows
this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to advances in
virtual reality technology.
Investigation is underway to incorporate the use
of sight with sound and feeling in the data analysis process. The
company already has developed a proof of concept application for
use in well planning and seismic data analysis using haptics workstations,
according to Grimsgaard.
Perhaps such esoteric developments that almost smack
of science fiction will serve as one of the high-tech-type lures
needed to entice some badly needed new blood into the industry.
"It will be very demanding and also very exciting
to be a future interpreter," Grimsgaard predicted. "You'll have
to be trained in a whole new way to use more of the senses, not
just the eyes."