Through its development in the gaming and defense sectors, gaming technology is being adopted by various industries, including oil and gas. Elaine Maslin reports.
The gaming industry has become big business - bigger than the movie business, says Gary Hufford, head of engineering and design software firm Aveva’s visualization center of excellence, based in Cambridge, England. He was previously CEO of Global Majic Software Inc., whose visualization and simulation software was bought by Aveva in late 2012.
Image: Aker Solutions’ recently opened iPort at Forus, near Stavanger. Source: Aker Solutions
Global Majic is one of an increasing number of simulation and visualization specialists that or are being used by the offshore oil and gas industry. Gaming technology is now run on standard Windows systems, making it more compact and accessible, and more practical and economical to use, says Hufford
As a result, powerful graphics and rendering engines—computer software able to simulate the physical properties and appearance of objects—are being adopted by industries outside defense, gaming and science.
Within the oil and gas sector, Aveva recently launched its Aveva Activity Visualisation Platform (AVP). It enables the creation and secure distribution of training simulations, or “applications,” which can be remotely accessed and used in single and multi-player modes.
The system uses computer-aided design (CAD) or laser scan data of facilities to create 3D virtual reality (VR) environments.
The rendering engines include Nvidia’s Physx, commonly used in graphics processing units to perform physics calculations in computer games such as Borderlands 2 and Metro: Last Light, creating “dynamic destruction, particlebased fluids, and life-like animation”.
For AVP, the result is a training environment in which objects display the physical characteristics they would in the real world: wheels on machinery or vehicles rotate as they would in real life; you cannot run through walls; plant reacts to “player” inputs.
In AVP, each application is built from a library of elements of plant and the built environment in the AVP Studio part of the system. Almost everything about the simulation environment can be changed. Sessions can operate in training and test modes, offering more or less guidance for the user in order to test their capabilities.
It is all about combing data and gaming engines, says Jeremy Jones, marketing manager, Enterprise Solutions, AVEVA. “It is about creating a full and detailed integration between the gaming world and the 3D design and construction world.”
Along with Santa Clara, California’s Nvidia Corp., companies behind the physics engines include Montreal-based CM Lab Simulations Inc., with its Vortex software, and Ede, Netherlands-based Tree C Technology, with its VR4MAX software combining physics and rendering.
The push towards virtual (VR) or immersive reality systems could repeat the virtual reality boom and bust of the 1990s. Professor Bob Stone, director of the human interface technologies team in the Human Factors Integration Defence Technology Centre at the University of Birmingham, says issues with VR in the 1990s were the cost of graphics computers, display, and input technologies.
“The use of stereo displays, or 3D projection, is not all it is hyped up to be,” says Stone. He quoted some research that suggests 53% of the population have some form of visual defect that prevents them from seeing stereo over a sustained period. Stone says there is little evidence that such environments deliver any performance benefits
The difference now is that VR is being replaced by gaming technologies more advanced than their VR predecessors, and they are operable on standard PCs. Research also suggests that single-point simulators, such as drilling or crane simulators, are less affected and that users are more likely to engage with a system with greater realistic properties. This was recently emphasized by the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) in its latest guidelines on simulator usage.
It emphasizes that a simulator’s level of realism impacts the learning experiences’ effectiveness on commonly-used simulators for equipment familiarization.
Gaming engines are being used for more than just training and simulation, however. Aker Solutions is using physics engines to inform its maintenance and modifications design and operations, says Geir Endresen, manager of Aker Solution’s Visioneering, which recently took control of Aker Solution’s new, purpose- built iPort center, near Stavanger.
Image: Inside Aveva’s AVP system. Source: Aveva
Visioneering is based on technology developed by Norway’s First Interactive, which Aker Solutions has been using since the early 2000s. This has been primarily through its drilling unit, in order to plan, test and train on drilling operations in a simulated environment, complete with a staircase to the drill floor and walkie talkies to communicate to other team members on the simulation.
After buying First Interactive in 2010, Endresen says Aker Solutions now sees potential for its use in maintenance and modification operations. Using physics engines to test operations has improved operational engineering, increased efficiency, reduced risk and improved HSE—all of which are demanded by operators.
“One of the main drivers of this technology is the possibility to add the physics into the design,” says Endresen. “In a normal engineering development, you don’t have the physical aspect. This is particularly useful for brownfield modifications and installations.” One project, to install new lifeboat facilities on Statoil’s Visund platform, used Visioneering to trial and train on the planned installation operation, a process involving lifting a structure onto a congested area on the deck.
As a result of the simulated trials, the procedure was optimized by adding a ballast to the platform in order to achieve a better installation angle when lifting new structures. Visioneering helped to train staff and project teams on a procedure before implementation.
This informed the layout of iPort, which meant creating separate simulation and engineering design workspaces, used as a local integrated operation center. “You can use the working rooms to carry out changes to the design as you are working in the virtual environment,” says Endresen.
Most of the simulation tools use graphics cards, which have reached high levels of fidelity and are compact, readily available, and relatively cheap.
Image: Coda Octopus Products Echoscope: A 3D sonar visualization of a subsea manifold, created in real-time. Source: Coda Octopus Products
The firm’s Echoscope sonar device is able to produce instantaneous 3D images of stationary and moving objects subsea. It uses phased array technology to generate more than 16,000 soundings simultaneously at an update rate of 12 Hz with an angular coverage of upto 55° x 55°.
When the sonar moves, the 3D data can be mapped or made into a mosaic, and users can view the 3D scene from different angles in real time using the firm’s Underwater Survey Explorer (USE) software, which was developed using 3D graphics cards from the gaming industry.
Because the data density is so high, the USE rendering engine can reduce noise, resulting in high-quality, real-time imagery, says Robert Carsley, Coda Octopus Products’ Commercial Director.
Echoscope and USE also work on moving objects, and when required, the moving images can incorporate visualizations based on data from a positioning system on a lifting device, augmenting the sonar-reality with a visualization of a lifting arm or crane. They can also overlay the image with previous 2D graphics or a worksite plan, for example detailing the infrastructure present in a subsea oil field. OE
Software augments reality
Aberdeen-based Return to Scene Ltd. has used spherical photography and software to create walk-through environments of assets—rust and all—complete with design data and historic inspection data on a Windows-based platform.
The R2S tool was developed for the forensic community to photographically capture crime scenes into rendered visual environments embedded with searchable crime scene data. This data includes DNA swab information (whether or not it has been processed), and is accessible remotely through a secure online system.
R2S has since been adopted by security agencies and now offshore operators. One of its largest projects on one facility involved shooting spherical images at 7500 locations, each requiring two shoots and about 21 images per shoot, resulting in about 315,000 high-resolution images. These were then digitally reworked and compressed so they are easy to download or access, complete with embedded updateable data, including P&IDs, inspection histories, procedures.
The next generation of the system will link into other systems, and allow users to go from a management system, to an image of the item, and related data.
Here, the driver for the technology is bed space on aging assets, says Bob Donnelly, business development director at Return to Scene. Maintenance engineers and technicians, internal and contractors, require access to assets. Images of the actual asset provide the ability to assess condition or corrosion levels remotely, become familiar with an asset, and carry out surveys.
CAD designs can be embedded into the images, and measurements can be taken from the images, to a higher degree of accuracy than by physical tape measure, says Donnelly.
Staff offshore can take images and embed them into R2S, allowing updates. Repeated photo shoots are necessary for condition and corrosion monitoring.