Data Becoming 'Us' Instead of 'It'

Research Leads to Virtual Immersion

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.

Image Caption

Getting down to business: Downhole geology is being aided by technological advances that are helping geoscientists to not only see data, but to be virtually inside the data.
Photos courtesy of Schlumberger

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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 days.

"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 sand penetration.

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 wells.

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 networks.

"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 they are.

"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."

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