PART I: This is Part 1 of a two-part series presenting recent virtual reality developments relating to geosciences. Part II will present concrete examples of VR usage in exploration, especially in offshore seismology.
In a technology demonstration, users were able to feel and manipulate geological stratifications (image courtesy of Fakespace Systems).
Exploration geophysicists are front-line explorers on yet another scientific frontier these days. The oil and gas sector is one of the world's first industries to use advanced virtual reality (VR) systems in standard work flow processes. Geophysicists have been pioneers in their practical adoption of networked VR workspaces for collaborative interpretation of 3D seismic data.
VR systems promise the development of the "earth model" concept of operation for the oil and gas industry. The powerful systems can provide unified computer models capable of displaying all the elements of exploration and production operations across a worldwide network.
VR, in its many configurations and many definitions, is a moving target. "Immersive visualization" or "visualization/simulation" are much used terms describing VR at the dawn of the 21st Century. VR's technological paradigm has been stretched yet again and configurations are evolving in several ways that will impact the geoscience professions:
- Newer hardware and software VR-based configurations, loosely termed "multisensory computing," have become available for early adopters within the seismic exploration industry.
- Immersive systems entering the marketplace are smaller, less expensive, and provide a workspace almost "personal" in nature.
- Collaborative capabilities of networked VR configurations are more important for the oil industry's worldwide workforce. This means an understanding of human psychology in virtual collaborative settings is ever more important, too.
For over a decade, there has been a fierce debate over the definition of VR and too often the definitions reflect the vendor doing the pronouncements. However, there are certain agreed principles. As Offshore's Exploration Editor Victor Schmidt defined VR in May 1999, "Virtual Reality places the user in a computer-generated, but user-controlled environment." In larger terms, VR is a human/computer interface that provides these key elements:
- Physical sense of immersion in the abstract space
- Psychological sense of presence in the space
- Interaction capabilities between the user and the artificial world
- Various navigation capabilities.
VR systems provide varying degrees of these four elements - depending on the price point, hardware capability and software functionality. It behooves the purchaser and future user to know which of VR's characteristics most cost-effectively meet the application's needs, and to plan and buy these elements in proportions in alignment with the application's needs.
Large-scale VR environments such as the wall-sized display screens and the CAVEtrademark (small immersive rooms in which users are completely surrounded by and interact with 3D images projected onto four sides of the room) are powerfully compelling and draw users into the virtual environment with an almost magical effect. The visceral appeal of large-scale systems is rooted in certain innate capabilities of the human organism.
The prefrontal cortex naturally runs simulations in the mind and we are biologically wired to analyze and interpret simulations. Several vendors at the 1999 SEG conference remarked on the "magical" draw of VR projected displays and explained that they were using the systems for marketing demonstrations for clients as well as for seismic data interpretation.
Visual magic of the systems aside, it must be cautioned that the first research studies evaluating VR systems are preliminary and the numbers of the early studies are not large enough to be statistically significant. But across industries, it has been found that immersive visualization configurations produce decisions that are more accurate and quicker than the same processes undertaken without a VR type system.
For exploration seismologists, this means that the use of VR technologies collapses the time necessary to gather and process data. There is more time to interpret, more time to run alternate hypotheses, and more time to test these hypotheses - all leading to more accurate decisions.
At the corporate macro-level, these same time and accuracy benefits can improve business decisions for oil and gas by visualization of integrated subsurface systems and interpretation of data via distributed collaborative work environments. As a Statoil representative explained at the 1999 SGI Energy Visualization Summit, "Immersive visualization helps Statoil find more oil and produce more oil." VR technologies serve to increase the value of reserves in the ground as well as expand exploration portfolios. Occidental's representative at that same event explained that VR is, "not just about saving money, but about making money."
Suddenly, the frontier has pushed back and newer VR product add-ons are multi-sensory, adding haptics (touch), olfactory (smell), and auditory (hearing) functionality as well. Haptic feedback peripherals are the first multi-sensory tools being developed with specific task functions for the exploration geosciences. Haptic displays are devices that provide feedback to humans interacting with virtual or remote environments.
Such devices convey a kinesthetic sense of presence to the operator. The key characteristic that distinguishes a haptic interface from passive devices is a bi-directional flow of information, creating a powerful connection with the human body's primordial communication channels. We can only reasonably anticipate that the ability to comprehend fluid viscosity within strata will increase interpreters' accuracy and speed.
Without great fanfare, smaller and lesser expensive VR configurations are entering
the geoscience marketplace. The 1999 SEG Conference saw introduction of Panoram Technologies desktop visualization system as well as the Smartspaces personal immersive cubicle. The huge virtual environments such as the walk-in CAVES or large-wall sized displays will always have greater efficiency in the quick and intuitive interpretation of extremely large seismic datasets.
But the smaller, less expensive cubicles and immersive desktop displays will be a revolution that brings VR literally to the masses. With the advent of broadband and corporate intranets, future workers will be sitting in VR-walled cubicles rather than gray fiberboard workspaces.
Personal, individual VR stations do not have the ability to handle the large datasets, but it is possible to link individual VR cubicles with larger immersive displays such as walls, theaters or caves. These individualized VR spaces will enable individual workers to move back and forth, and in and out of the corporate "earth model."
The decision-making power of trained minds collaborating within networked VR environments is one of the greatest benefits of these technologies. The successful use of virtual environments in the oil and gas industry has been spearheaded by visionary and passionate leaders such as Michael Zeitlin at Texaco. These individuals deserve a great deal of credit for successes to date. Yet, research urgently needs to be conducted on how everyday teams can best make decisions in virtual environments.
Small group decision-making is a complex set of skills - and an international, multicultural, far-flung, yet networked team brings special considerations. Guidelines for the most effective human collaboration possible within VR remain to be hammered out. The social needs of humans in virtual environments are always the last to be addressed - yet this is the very place where the next round of efficiencies must be made.
The next arena that must be researched and developed is the human within the VR space. Technology is only worthwhile if aligned with the physical and social demands of the human. The technologies underpinning VR continue to wheel out of the research labs and corporate sales offices, but the psycho-social guidelines for how to best use VR technologies remain to researched and written.
Every individual immersed in a virtual environment is a complex socio-biological organism. Yet, the scientific understanding and examination of technological capabilities of VR have always been far in front of the understanding of how the human being functions within virtual spaces. As Schmidt said in this earlier 1999 article, "All VR sessions are a form of active undocumented experimentation at this point." No industry making major investments in these technologies can afford such experimentation any longer.;