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Turning Virtual Reality into Real Cash


Unless you’ve recently been hiding out in a sealed cardboard box (and not a Google Cardboard box at that), you’ll likely have heard of augmented reality and virtual reality; especially in their application as toys. But these virtual reality “toys” are being used to deliver real-world savings in the operations of oil and gas companies.

This special post was written by Dominika Warchol Hann.

What is Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality?


Virtual reality (VR) creates a The Matrix-like visually-immersive environment, wherein your “real world” environment is replaced by a computer-generated rendering. Examples of VR are the games playable on the Oculus Rift headset.


Augmented reality (AR) overlays pertinent data on top of your real environment, creating new ways for users to interact with the real world. Examples of AR include smart phones and tablets running applications like PokemonGo and applications run on headsets, such as Microsoft’s Hololens.


“Mixed reality (MR) represents the controlled collision of the AR/VR and Internet of Things trends. With MR, the virtual and real worlds come together to create new environments in which both digital and physical objects – and their data – can coexist and interact with one another.” – Deloitte University Press, Tech Trends 2017

AR, VR and Mixed Reality solve three problems in oil and gas

Inaccessible assets


Oil and gas assets are often in inhospitable places, inaccessible places, or both. Sending a worker to perform visual observations and maintenance is certainly costly and potentially unsafe. While sensors, drones and remote operating centers reduce the need for human contact, the resulting interaction between engineer and equipment may feel lacking; this may reduce the efficacy of problem solving.

Invisible assets


While we have maps, drawings, and 3D renderings complete with walk throughs of assets, each lacks the feeling of “really being there.” This results in design errors, critical bottlenecks being missed, infrastructure being forgotten, etc. Furthermore, even when an asset does exist, it is sometimes invisible to the naked eye due to it being buried underground, in a wall or in the guts of a machine.

Information overload


Asset status, maintenance schedules, best practices, and regulations are constantly changing. It is almost impossible to proactively keep abreast of every new development considering the scale of oil and gas infrastructure. However, staff need to be informed to ensure safe, effective and efficient operations. Traditional training sessions have proven an expensive and not fully effective solution in addressing this gap.

Use cases for Mixed Reality in Oil and Gas

Mixed Reality uses VR to make inaccessible assets “real”


As more and more projects become automated, VR can enable a fully immersive experience for offsite workers who are directing unmanned robots. Consider Shell’s Sensabot – this robot is equipped with sensing technology, cameras and arms. Remote machine maintenance does not feel like an insurmountable next step as we have been able to perform remote open heart surgery since 2010.


For widely dispersed assets, VR can help onsite workers communicate issues to remote experts. An onsite worker unsure of how to proceed can contact the expert and display the situation in real time. The remote expert does not need to travel to the worker’s location to be fully immersed in the situation. They can communicate the solution to the worker via an AR setup, wherein the worker can see exactly which components they should be interacting with. This method of communication is being adopted by companies such as Maersk Oil, in their off-shore platforms and onshore operating centers. Although Star Trek teleportation machines don’t exist yet, this application comes pretty close in cutting down unnecessary and wasteful movement of labor.

Mixed Reality Connects Data to Visualize Invisible or Non-Existing Assets


By bringing together 3D drawings and asset data in a virtual environment, workers can experience assets before they set foot on them. This creates opportunities in:

  1. Virtual debottlenecking and safety inspections, such as those being undertaken by the Linde Group, which enable assessors to proactively identify issues and address them at the blue print stage.
  2. Staff training. Studies show that staff trained in virtual environments better understand their physical operating environment and work tasks compared with peers trained using traditional methods. Training can range from maintenance activities to emergency evacuations. For example, Lloyd’s Register has developed a “safety training software…[where] scenarios are created from real-life experiences and incidents…Human nature, communication, decisions and reaction times mean that trainees very rarely get it right the first time, or even the second time…”. In true emergency situations, VR training may save critical seconds that can save someone’s life.
  3. AR/VR and geocodes can make invisible assets visible. AR can display buried and hidden assets such as pipelines and cables, showing workers exactly where they should/should not be drilling. In case of a fire, workers wearing AR headsets could be directed out of the danger area through other visual cues, even if their path is covered by smoke, using applications such as the PoindextER.

Solving information overload with AR


The convergence of AR with the internet of things delivers the right information to the right person at the right time:

  1. On-demand notifications can include warning pop-ups in the worker’s view when machines are hot or machine components are still in operation; and can point out which components of the machine require servicing.
  2. On-demand training and reference information can be triggered when workers access machinery that has been recently replaced (e.g., a worker is forbidden access until they watch a quick instructional video). Training and reference information could be delivered via a headset or a smartphone / tablet. FuelFX “allows users to hold up a tablet or smartphone device, aim the camera at an object, and see animation and details related to the object appear on the screen”. Cisco and GE have implemented AR headset systems for maintenance workers. In fact, a study undertaken in aviation suggests that workers using an AV headset displaying a maintenance manual are up to 30 percent faster and 90 percent more accurate than peers using only PDF instructions.

Rugged AR and VR hardware for oil and gas


In remote operating centers, current-state AR and VR technology may suffice. However, on-market AR and VR rigs (e.g., Hololens, Oculus Rift, Google Glass, etc.,) are clunky, delicate and heavy. Not a winning combination on a stormy off shore oil rig at night in the winter.


These technologies represent pioneers in a rapidly evolving environment, and rugged versions for industrial use are emerging. Companies such as DAQRI are working to integrate these technologies into work helmets, while Osterhout Design Group is designing rugged AR glasses.

Getting started


There is a lot happening in AR/VR . The first step to successfully implementing a Mixed Reality solution is to identify your business’ inaccessibility, invisibility and information challenges. Whether the challenges are occurring within your frontline operations, in your remote operating centers, or in your design groups, you will want to consider:

  1. The size of the opportunity.
  2. The availability of applications – AR and VR applications in oil and gas are still evolving; your specific application may need to be developed from scratch.
  3. Availability of data and sensors to deliver inputs into the AR and VR – AR and VR on their own are merely user interfaces, not unlike a computer screen. To create a mixed reality, it is necessary to identify a good source of data to mix with the real environment.
  4. The hardware. – Key considerations will include whether you will require VR exclusively, or is AR also needed by the same workers. Additionally, you will need to consider ruggedness and the software platform used. As the market is evolving rapidly, no single player has emerged as the oil and gas killer solution.
  5. Willingness to adopt new technologies – Key to successful adoption is successful change management and communications. The disruption inherent in implementing Mixed Reality is specific to the opportunity. VR training is exciting and fun, whereas AR maintenance may seem to some like another step closer to an Orwellian future.

There you have it. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality mixed with the Internet of Things are proven solutions that help oil and gas companies troubleshoot assets before they are built, provide on-demand information to frontline workers, deliver immersive training, and make invisible assets visible to enable worker safety.

This special post was written by Dominika Warchol Hann, with special thanks to Paul Frank for his research assistance.

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