SGI showcases mega-visualization for oil and gas industry

Looking to prove the merits of ultra-powerful visualization technology, Silicon Graphics Canada recently set up a Reality Center demonstration system in Calgary and invited local oil and gas companies to test the system using real data.

During the two-week demo hosted by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), companies were invited to load their business and seismic data onto an Onyx2 eight-processor supercomputer at the heart of the Reality Center complex. The Reality Center included three projectors and a three-piece, curved 120-degree wrap-around screen from Sun Valley, Calif.-based Panoram Technologies Inc., meant to provide an immersive environment. In some cases, the experience is intensified through the use of stereoscopic viewing devices (fancy 3D glasses). The demo unit ran at a resolution of 2,560 by 762, however, increasing that to 3,072 by 1,024 is theoretically possible.

The idea is to present complex data graphically, to improve understanding and decision-making, said Michael Harrison, Silicon Graphics Canada’s branch manager for Western Canada.

Landmark Graphics, a subsidiary of Houston-based Halliburton Co., is a provider of software solutions for the oil and gas and was a host at the recent Calgary demonstrations. Nicholas Purday, technical manager for Canada, said: “We believe these types of environments have a lot of value for teams.” He said the large screens allow teams to look at a number of data sources at once, to better understand the relationships between data sets. (Landmark markets a Reality Center-type solution, using an Onyx computer, under the name Decisionarium.)

Participating companies at the demo included Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. Geologist John Van der Laan said visualization means “a large group of people can sit there and see the whole thing. People get the point really quickly and we can collaborate.

“The big screen means a lot of people can see it. But because a lot of screen is available, we can also see a lot of different kinds of data simultaneously. You don’t have to go to such an effort mentally.”

At Gulf Canada, Van der Laan and his colleagues currently use a visualization system that includes a large flat screen and three projectors fed from up to eight different sources, powered by a PC workstation. However, after the demo he anticipates his organization will eventually consider upgrading to a Reality Center-type system, because of its powerful processing. “The way it handles graphics is very nice and smooth. If you’re doing a live presentation, a five-second pause can feel like a minute.”

While the Reality Center technology has been around for a few years, it recently experienced a price drop from as much as $5 million down to the current entry-level price of about $500,000, Harrison said. There are now more than 40 organizations around the world using the technology, he said. With visualization, “we’re finding companies get better decisions and make them quicker,” and it’s easier for teams of people to work together and brainstorm on sub-surface geology, for example. “With true immersive visualization, we believe companies can see reservoirs more clearly.”

Silicon Graphics has had some success marketing its Reality Center to oil and gas companies in other countries. Bakersfield, Calif.-based Occidental Oil & Gas Group purchased the system this spring. Bill Bartling, manager of technical computing, said it’s used primarily to interpret sub-surface seismic and well data, using 2D and 3D models. “It allows you to bring a lot of data into a common environment and to bring a lot of people together in one environment.” Previously, the company would print large diagrams on plotters, “but it wasn’t interactive, and invariably there’d be changes and we’d have to start over.”

He said the organization is able to make decisions in one afternoon that previously could have taken weeks or even months. And if the company can make better, quicker decisions about wells worth $1 million to $20 million, the technology investment will pay off, he said.

However, the potential customer base for high-end visualization is very broad, Harrison said, “from medical research to the petroleum sector to the arts.”

Evan Fietz, senior member of the technical staff for Silicon Graphics in Calgary, demonstrated other areas of application for the Reality Center, including surgery, molecular modelling, geographical rendering (using satellite imagery over wireframe models) and even virtual tours through historic and cultural monuments. “To develop geography, we collect texture maps from photos and blend that with the geometry for a dynamic model you can move around in.”

Silicon Graphics has just announced the very first Canadian customer of its Reality Center technology — The National Research Council’s Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Institute (IMTI), which in June officially opened the doors of its London, Ont.-based Virtual Environment Technologies (VET) Centre.

The centre includes an SGI Monster Reality Onyx2, as well as a variety of visualization technologies from Kitchener, Ont.-based Electrohome Ltd./Fakespace Inc., such as projectors, screens and workbenches. (The total investment from the various founders of the facility is expected to be $5 million to $6 million over three years.) Four different visualization rooms will give users “the opportunity to immerse themselves” up to 24 hours per day, said Gerry Delval, manager of marketing and business development for the IMTI. Potential corporate users could range from manufacturers to architects to urban planners, he said. Organizations will have access to the Centre through a variety of membership plans, including fee for service.

For example, Delval suggested auto manufacturers could explore the insides of virtual cars, based on their computerized product designs. This kind of visualization is a good way to spot errors, he said. “If you’re trying to visualize from 2D diagrams or 3D images projected in two dimensions layered one on another, you’re bound to miss things. The next best thing to reality is to create an environment that gives the impression of reality.”

Delval also envisioned medical uses for the technology. “Surgeons planning complex operations can practice. For a brain tumour operation they can take a CAT scan of the real patient’s brain and create a 3D virtual simulation of that brain, and practice again and again from different approaches.”