Technology always finds a home. Some readers may remember the 90s moral panic about virtual reality: teenagers were allegedly going to retreat en masse into fictional worlds, spending their lives plugged into sinister visors and bulky gloves as tumbleweeds bounced across deserted rave floors. Even MTV got into the act, running ads touting "actual reality" and reminding viewers to get outside and live—you know something has cracked when a TV network starts pushing fresh air and sunshine. As we now know, the kludgy virtual reality games of the past never put up a serious threat to the time-honored teenage distractions of trying to get beer and attract the attention of other teenagers and the visual displays kept getting better, adding more interactivity and increasing levels of verisimilitude. Now, instead of virtual reality, we can enjoy augmented reality.
OilOnline asked Oliver Diaz, CEO of Houston-based media and augmented reality company FuelFX, how he saw this technology affecting the hydraulic fracturing industry, especially regarding training techniques.
Augmented reality describes a platform in which devices can recognize aspects of the world around the users and display enriching information. Augmented reality (AR) can superimpose a 3D model on a schematic, make activities pop up from the pages of a children's book, or, when linked to other information streams, provide real-time data about the machinery before your eyes. This functionality is still relatively new, but is already gathering buzz and excitement in both the tech world and beyond, and new applications for AR are constantly being explored. The oil and gas industry, especially fracking operations, are among the sectors ready to apply this new paradigm.
AR keeps training from being purely academic. Any object or space can be "tagged" within the system, so a person looking at a page or piece of equipment can be offered additional content—not just additional written content, but videos, virtual 3D models, and even real-time data hooked in from another stream, adding visual and experiential levels to training and everyday operations. This accessible information and reference stream will make following set procedures much easier, since it requires neither rote memorization nor looking the proper action up in an enormous binder that's "…around here someplace, I would have sworn…" It can also increase efficiency, since data can be retrieved within the program. AR content can be made accessible through any class of device, phone, tablet, or wearable, and some companies are even developing "smart helmets" that combine Google Glass-like wearable display capability with the noggin-shielding resilience of a hard hat.
In the short-term, lower oil prices are impacting some of the unconventional plays. Longer-term, this technology is conceptually adaptable and scalable to projects of any type and scope with fracking being an obvious first stop for AR-based training within the oil and gas industry. The industry is so prolific, and has expanded so rapidly in the United States over the past several years, that Diaz sees a general desire to standardize procedures across the board, and AR could dramatically speed and simplify this process. Fracking outfits, with smaller staffs and less equipment, can provide relatively easy proof-of-concept examples that may persuade other sectors. Fracking operations also tend to be less conservative than other branches of the industry; this not only means that unconventional players may be more open to new approaches, but also, practically, that those in this space are less strict about what tech can be used, making the adaptation a shorter jump.
Augmented reality may not be showing up in oil and gas fields immediately. Yet, AR training and teaching materials are being developed in tandem with new drilling technologies that will be making their way into the field within the next few years. As these advances appear, so will AR functionality and resources, making fracking operations—and, perhaps one day, the industry as a whole—safer, more responsive, and really, really cool.