Visualization system drills into oil company’s data

When you’re spending almost $50 million to drill an offshore oil well, what’s another $1 million in technology to help make the job easier?

For Murphy Oil Company Ltd., the Calgary-based Canadian division of Murphy Oil Corp., the price tag was worth it for a visualization system provided by supercomputer maker SGI and Fakespace Systems Inc. of Kitchener, Ont.

The stereo digital projection system enables geologists, geophysicists and engineers to work together in a collaborative visualization environment, showing a topographical representation of an oil patch, for example, or the fault lines at a site.

“It allows us to look at data in a three-dimensional sense,” says Duncan McMaster, general manager of east coast exploration at Murphy Oil Company. “Previously, we have been looking at 3D-size data in a 2D sense, just on a straight, flat computer screen.”

Users are able to see projected images in 3D by wearing special glasses. “When you put the glasses on, you’re actually immersed in the data,” says McMaster, “so that helps in the interpretation. Also, because it’s projected into a large room, you can get everyone together looking at the data – all of the disciplines: engineering, geology, geophysics — which has always been difficult to do when you’re just looking at a small workstation.”

The result, says McMaster, is a lot more collaboration and input of ideas.

Murphy deals with extremely large data sets from its offshore endeavours in the neighborhood of 10GB or more. “It gives us the ability to look at those large data sets very quickly and get an idea as to what’s going on.”

With its new visualization system, Murphy can project much larger images. “We can show more data and get a better regional picture and pick out trends. You just couldn’t get that much data on an ordinary computer screen.”

The visualization system did not require Murphy to construct any new real estate thanks to a recent acquisition, which pushed his department to new, larger office space. “It would have been difficult otherwise because there just wouldn’t be enough room,” says McMaster. The facility can host about 15 people comfortably. “We’ve had 20 people in there, standing up and walking around.”

Considering how much money is already being spent on drilling offshore oil wells and the efficiences the system provides, McMaster says the investment was a sound one.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a major cost,” he says. “You want to do as much science as possible to make sure the well is in the right place. You also want to shorten your cycle time from when you actually acquire the data to when it’s interpreted.

“You want to get those wells down as fast as possible.”

Murphy has had the visualization facility up and running for about two months now, but McMaster says it will be several more months before everyone is completely comfortable with the new way of looking data. “People have got to change their ideas a little bit and learn how to use it. It’s a different way of looking at things, so there is a little bit of a learning process there.”

The Calgary location is the first in the Murphy organization to be equipped with such a visualization system.

SGI provided the computing power for the system, while all the visual display and projector elements were provided by Fakespace.

Jeff Brum, marketing manager for Fakespace, says the market for such visualization systems is growing, especially in the oil gas sector because companies can quickly see the return on investment.

Oil firms can better decide where to start drilling a well because they have more detailed, complex information at the finger tips, which saves time and a lot of money. “That may mean drilling one hole instead of four or five,” says Brum. One of the soft benefits that have come to light in the Murphy implementation is the improved collaboration among different disciplines, he adds.

Other applications of the technology include manufacturing, where companies could replace a physical prototype with a virtual one or biomedical research, so that complex molecule models could be displayed.

Right now, SGI is Fakespace’s primary partner on the computing side, says Brum, because of the complexity of the computing tasks and size of the data. “They are the standard right now.”

He says most customers using SGI for the computing requirements, although others have connected Fakespace technology to Sun or NT boxes.

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