Now Playing at Your Local Visionarium:

Abstract: The rise of large, immersive visualization systems in E&P not only is aiding in producing more oil and gas at a lower cost, but it's also helping provide a source of future professionals.

Analysis: The petroleum industry's upstream sector suffers from a well-publicized shortage of trained, experienced personnel, particularly in the geoscience and engineering disciplines.

In the "bust" cycles of the mid-1980s and late 1990s, companies squandered many of their employees via cost-cutting, and those folks vowed never again to return, even if times got better (and when times did in fact improve, they stood by their word). Meanwhile, other industry professionals disappeared as part of the rapid attrition rate in an industry that had been "graying" rather quickly during the previous 20 years. In any case, the upstream industry today is going lean and mean when it comes to an experienced professional workforce.

The big companies, including the majors and larger independents, have found that new exploration and production (E&P) technologies are allowing them to find oil and gas at a lower cost and with fewer people. The smaller companies have come to depend to some degree on outside consultants to help bolster what shortfalls they might have in full-time exploration and production specialists.

But thanks to major advances in information technology (IT) during the past 10 to 15 years, most E&P companies have found that by combining the huge volumes of geologic and engineering data they possess today--thanks to technologies like 3D seismic, measurement-while-drilling, and so on--and treating it with both inventive software and state-of-the-art imaging, they can succeed pretty well even with the current shortage of pros.

Perhaps the best known of the upstream industry's IT advances in recent years was its rapid introduction to and widespread application of large collaborative and immersive visualization systems. Visualization technology was used by the upstream sector long before computers became commonplace--on bar charts and graphs, on well logs and seismic sections, and so on. However, once computers gained a foothold in the industry, first through the financial end and then in operations--and, frankly, long after industry in general had accepted them--the progression accelerated. During the past three to five years, the character of computer-generated displays has improved in resolution, in physical size, and in interactivity, and the upstream sector is benefiting greatly from it.

Desktop computer display systems have proved their worth in the industry's various scientific and engineering disciplines, and continue to be used extensively. These systems have improved in accuracy, and therefore have proven themselves as excellent tools for efficient data interpretation and modeling in a sort of "discipline-specific" way, with less opportunity to collaborate.

But when visualization systems were upgraded into much larger applications, and combined with the "virtual reality" concept, things really got rolling. Interpreting millions of bits of seismic, drilling, and reservoir data, then projecting 3D images of complex geologic structures on an immersive panoramic screen, has changed the industry forever.

Today, these larger display systems, with their mini-theater-sized curved screens and immersive (appealing to the senses) technologies, are being used to present both the subsurface data and the subsurface environment to users who, in a virtually real way, can join in multidisciplinary teams to view, manipulate, walk, and even "fly" through underground reservoirs to consider alternative solutions to drilling and production challenges in whole fields or minute corners of fields. Tracking systems follow each user's viewing position and present the display from that angle. They also follow users' hand positions to enable them to interact with the data onscreen. Audio imaging supplies additional data or reinforces visual display components. Even so-called "haptic" systems incorporate the sense of touch in the interactive process.

Texaco Inc. is credited with creating if not the first such large system, then at least one of them. That company, now folded into ChevronTexaco, established their "3D visualization facility" in Houston in November 1997, and it drew a lot of oohs and ahs. The company demonstrated a "virtual" look at the entire geologic structure of its Kern River field in California, projecting it on a 25-ft-long, 9-ft-high concave screen. That new capability, said Texaco officials, gave a multidisciplinary team the ability to discuss and agree on the most efficient, cost-effective way to inject steam into hard-to-reach areas of the Kern River reservoir to assure that the heavy oil contained there would be produced.

Texaco's 3D visualization "theater" was followed shortly by similar facilities acquired by other producing companies, not only in the U.S., but overseas, as well. Thanks to specialized computer products companies like Silicon Graphics Inc. and others, visualization systems were now being applied specifically to earth science, much as they had been to visual effects for the motion picture industry, diagnostic medicine, and industrial design.

The result was a starburst of more such "theaters," and not all of them in oil company offices. It wasn't long before major oil service industry players like Schlumberger, Halliburton, and others began promoting their own in-house visualization facilities for use by operating companies who contracted for their "total well" capabilities, as well as by smaller companies who could not afford their own systems. Since then, new iterations have allowed even educational institutions to accept older systems with which to train incipient geologists, geophysicists, and engineers.

And the iterations just keep on coming. Earlier this month, for instance, Paradigmâ„¢, which bills itself as an integrated "geoscience knowledge" company, inaugurated what they call their Visionarium in Houston (once a Houston-based seismic software and data analysis company, Paradigm now has offices around the world, none of which is designated specifically as "headquarters").

Paradigm's Visionarium, located at its Houston office, includes a panoramic, 18-ft-wide, rear-lit screen. It has been used by producing companies to review new Paradigm geoscience software products, and has served as a center for integrated service project reviews, among other industry functions.

David Cox, senior vice president and manager of the company's Houston operating unit, said Paradigm supplies geoscientific software suites and has equipped a number of collaborative 3D visualization theaters around the world with them.

"This new facility provides an environment in which our customers can experience the dramatic impact of stereoscopic, large-scale displays on the critical details of their seismic, reservoir, and drilling features," said Cox. Paradigm also expects to establish similar facilities in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, as such theaters become more common in the industry, the search for oil and gas around the world will become even more sophisticated, with the "risk" associated with finding and producing oil and gas mitigated even more, and knowledge of producing formations growing as they move from the cradle to abandonment. Additionally, they will become more important as high-tech boardrooms, where senior managers even today use them for project reviews.

However, equal importance should be given to such decision-making systems as teaching laboratories for young people long on education but short on experience. And as the systems' technological scope expands, even the old hands may learn a few things, because remember, the kid operating his own interactive game system today is the petroleum or reservoir engineer of tomorrow.

But it might be well to remember that while working with "large-scale stereoscopic displays" and the like probably will continue to revolutionize the industry and help concentrate brainpower on specific seismic, drilling, and reservoir challenges, there's still a basic reality in oil and gas E&P:

The drill bit still has to penetrate the ground and turn to the right, and even the most sophisticated gizmo can't change that.