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Using virtual reality in geology

Friday, June 29, 2018

UK start-up Imaged Reality has made software to enable geologists to go on virtual field trips, seeing outcrops using Oculus Rift headsets.

UK start-up Imaged Reality has developed software to enable geologists to go on virtual field trips, seeing outcrops using Oculus Rift headsets.

The company was founded by Claudia Ruiz-Graham, a geologist who spent 18 years in BP, as a former member of BP Eurasia's exploration leadership team and BP Colombia executive team, and exploration advisor to Ecopetrol, the state oil company of Colombia.

Geologists often visit outcrops, because they are places where they can see analogues to hydrocarbon reservoirs in the subsurface. There are examples where specific subsurface features, such as ancient rivers (fluvial channels) can be seen for real, as outcrops on the side of a cliff.

But visiting outcrops is expensive in terms of travel budget. Even when you are there, it is not possible to see everything close-up, or look at it from different angles, or easily compare one outcrop with another.

3D Gaia, the virtual reality app developed by Imaged Reality uses digital outcrop models, from imagery gathered by drones. 3D Gaia enables the user to walk along an outcrop at real scale, or fly around it, using the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Accelerometers in the headset can work out when you are moving your head, and adjust the image you see accordingly.

There is also a virtual laser pointer, which you can operate with your hand controls, and use it to draw on the outcrop model you see. You can interpret horizons, or mark that you can see a change in lithology, for example change from fluvial braided to meandering reservoir sandstones.
3D Gaia also integrates Google Earth, so you can virtually fly anywhere in the planet. This can be integrated with geological maps, for example the British Geological Survey map of the UK.

You can select which scale you want to view the outcrop at. You can see it like a giant, with the entire width of a 500m wide cliff all in your frame of vision, or zoom up close to something. You can also stand at the bottom the cliff and see the outcrop at real scale.

Ms Ruiz-Graham sees the technology as a powerful tool for immersive learning, at a time where low oil prices have meant reduction in the number of field trips.

3D Gaia is not meant to replace field trips, but it can make them more effective. If you have already understood the geology of an outcrop from having it explained to you using virtual reality, it will mean much more when you go there, she said.

When people visit outcrops, there can be a lot of walking to see everything they want to see - which of course can be done in a fraction of the time, if you are viewing it on virtual reality.

Also, when visiting outcrops, geologists often want to see something up close, which they can only see from the beach or ground. With 3D Gaia you can see the outcrop from any 'position' you like. You can get close to areas that are too hazardous or to difficult to reach.

And instead of having a collection of photos, videos and notes from the real field trip, you can experience the entire field trip back again in your office.

Imaged Reality is also developing networked VR, this will enable teams located in different parts of the world, to join the same virtual field trip. Some people like the idea that you can have a team physically based in different parts of the world but all looking at the same thing. 'You couldn't take your entire teams to the same field because of cost limitations,' she said.

The software

Ms Ruiz-Graham got the idea for the software after seeing footage taken by drones of fjords in Norway, and started thinking about how drone imagery could be used to better understand outcrops. So she and her team developed the 3D Gaia software as a tool for geologists to view and interpret outcrops in virtual reality.

The software includes tools to measure distances, for example the height or width of an outcrop.

You can measure inclines, for example if you see beds which are nearly vertical or close to horizontal.

The 3D models can also be looked at from any angle - vertical, horizontal or anything in between. When you are flying the field of view is reduced to you do not get motion sickness.

There is 3D models for outcrops in Dorset (UK) and Ireland on the system. The 3D outcrop models can be linked into Google Earth, so you can zoom around the planet and then link into the outcrop model.

It might be possible to integrate it with many other types of subsurface data, such as seismic and well images,

Learning tool

The software should also be a good learning tool. 'We learn the most when we are interacting with things, and make observations in an interactive kind of way,' she said.

'I'm really excited about what this can do for skill development,' she said. 'In the current environment, the industry has lost a lot of skilled experience. There is a need to develop the skills of younger people.'

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that can help the industry to do that.'

Development so far

The company has been in business since late 2016.

So far it has completed a pilot with a major oil company and is in conversations with a second oil major, who are interested in using it for training, she said.

There has been some discussions with universities about using it as a training tool.

The website has an interesting 'testimonials' page, with video interviews of people who experimented with the app at the company's exhibition stand at the London AAPG ICE event in October 2017.

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