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Digital Roughnecks: Animation for Intelligent Oilfields

Christopher Harz explores how skilled animators are using advanced visualization techniques to improve oil exploration.

Advanced visualization techniques are now used in the oil exploration field. Animation tools such as Walkinside by VRcontex let oil companies form virtual environments to improve their efficiency. © VRcontext.

The field of exploring energy sources has been getting a lot of attention lately, with a barrel of oil costing over $60, and petroleum experts discussing $100 barrels as a matter of when instead of if. Whereas much can be done to conserve gasoline by getting more fuel-efficient cars (that is, getting rid of SUVs that look like land yachts), the truth is that it wont be enough to materially change oil demand, since petroleum is used for a lot of things other than making cars go, including power plants to generate electricity and synthetic fertilizer to grow food. In fact, there are estimates that in some areas of the world it may take a pound of diesel for each pound of food to fertilize it and distribute it by truck and/or ship.

What is not as well known is that traditional means of finding the oil and getting it out of the ground have been pretty inefficient. A typical oil field may yield 30% or less of the oil actually in the ground, says Bill Bartling, an industry expert. Improving on this yield could have huge consequences. Each percentage point of additional recovery from known oil reservoirs could add up to five billion barrels of oil to our producible reserves, Bartling notes.

Historically, wells were sunk vertically into the ground, hoping to hit a pool of oil somewhere below. The problem is that most of the oil doesnt sit in big pools it may be distributed in many smaller pools, or in permeable rocks. To find out where the oil is hiding, a whole range of sensors may be used to test the types of soils, temperatures and other factors deep under the earth. For permeable rock, for instance, water is injected into a small area and a procedure similar to medical tomography (think CAT scans) is used to analyze it. Thousands of sensors of different types may be employed in large fields, a far cry from the old days, when a few seismic sensors would pick up very limited data from small explosions that were set off. Using many more sensors underground produces a lot more useful data but its really, really a lot more. Whereas the old seismic tests produced kilobytes of data that were studied over months, the new tests produce terabytes of data that should be analyzed in realtime, according to Bartling. But how can humans analyze this tsunami of data?

Panoram builds advanced visualization centers where groups of experts can view the same 3D displays and work collaboratively. Above is an ergonomic study for its desktop visualization display. © Panoram Technologies.

Heres where animation comes in to save the day. Three-dimensional animation programs and skilled artists can compress the tons of data into understandable pictures of the underground areas and their contents, a process termed advanced visualization. This type of animation was first used in the medical field, to form 3D pictures of the human body, complete with the ability to fly through parts of the body such as the arteries to explore what was going on there. In a similar way, animation tools such as Walkinside by VRcontex let oil companies form a picture of an underground world as a virtual environment complete with colors and textures to represent the different types of substances found there and fly through the area to explore it.

Because it takes a team with several types of skills to make the million-dollar decisions on how to best interpret this underground virtual wonderland, companies such as Panoram build advanced visualization centers that let dozens of experts look at the same 3D displays, explore together, and reach conclusions collaboratively. The display for such a center can be very impressive the advanced visualization center for Scripps Institute, for instance, has a 28 curved screen, a stereo 3D display and the ability to hold 60 people. A display area of this type can have over 20 times the bandwidth of a TV picture, according to Theo Mayer, the ceo of Panoram.

3D animation is a hot topic around the world's giant oil companies and recent tests by a major producer showed yields of 65% or better. Above is Walkinside used in a safety VR application. © VRcontext.

Do advanced visualization techniques work for the oil industry? Recent tests by a major producer using advanced visualization showed yields of 65% or better, an incredible improvement that has produced far-reaching reactions throughout the industry, according to Bartling. Being able to see the underground deposits in 3D and color also supports different types of drilling. Instead of the old-style vertical drills, oil companies are now starting to drill sideways to follow an area of oil more accurately, or perhaps so that they can drill underneath a populated area without having to put oil derricks right into the middle of it. The promise of these new animated visualization techniques is resulting in a face change in the industry, where flat-screen monitors with 3D displays are starting to appear in every executives office and boardroom.

Several schools are teaching this new type of visualization. Among the foremost is SDSU, San Diego State University, with its CITI Center for Information Technology and Infrastructure co-directed by Professors Eric Frost and Bob Welty. Such animated 3D visualization can play a major role in energy development and oil exploration, and can also prove to be useful for other fields such as environmental monitoring, first responder interaction and collaborative learning, notes Dr. Frost. There are even conferences on fields that have been instrumented and integrated with advanced displays, now often referred to as intelligent oil fields. One such event, the Intelligent Energy 2006 Conference in April in Amsterdam, features a panel named (as a sign of the times), Higher Recovery from Existing and Developmental Fields: How do we Engage the Xbox generation to succeed? It is co-chaired by Dr. Frost and Alex Lightman, an expert in realtime sensornets connected via high-speed Internet technology.

In short, 3D animation is now a hot topic around the worlds giant oil companies, and advanced visualization credentials will get you an interested audience in such organizations, as well as in companies such as Schlumberger, IBM and Halliburton that support them. More companies with animation tools are becoming prominent, such as Computational Engineering International with its EnSight toolset. Autodesk has targeted this as a major strategic area, and is getting more features and plug-ins for this field for its popular 3ds Max toolset. There is a growing demand for 3D animation-related skills in the oil industry that may provide many career paths for creative artists, who may have the opportunity to travel the world, get a great paycheck and help the worlds energy situation a feat that should earn them a resounding, Well done!

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.