What is immersive technology?
Your essential guide to the most exciting area of new growth in oil and gas
What are immersive technologies?
Immersive technologies are modes of altering, replicating, or enhance reality. An umbrella term, this includes augmented, virtual, and mixed realities. Immersive technologies have promised a great deal of widespread improvement across the energy industry, but a lack of audience and an unwillingness to take risks has prevented large-scale uptake. Recent hardware developments and changing public and industry attitudes are now altering attitudes, and we would expect to see far more of these different tech solutions in the next few years.
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However, persistent under-delivery and the delayed effect of China-US market tensions have caused a number of important augmented reality start-ups to become insolvent. The future for immersive technology will be much like its past: exciting, unpredictable, and always pushing the envelope.
Augmented reality is a technology that combines a user’s view of the real world with additional digital assets to provide a combination of virtual and real. Augmented reality has two major applications for the oil and gas industry – pre-made scenarios, and remote maintenance.
Pre-made scenarios are digitalised assets that oil and gas workers would routinely use for procedural maintenance, inspections, or common operations instead of physical manuals or ‘field handbooks’. The same vital information can be presented in a novel visual manner that can be updated in real-time, and requests and queries can be relayed to support teams via integrated systems. With an AR handbook, live data can be included, and various scenarios – such as critical errors with equipment – can be simulated and/or flagged much earlier.
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AR applications also allow for remote service capabilities, helping workers connect with technicians and support with a single click of a button. Remote assistance professionals will be able to view exactly what the worker is seeing, and deal with any unexpected issues in a far more timely manner. Along with the pre-made scenarios, this allows a complete coverage of maintenance through AR.
Virtual reality is an interactive experience taking place entirely within a simulated environment. Unlike augmented reality, using VR does not require users to be in a specific location to view certain visualisations. A VR headset allows the viewer to experience a new world regardless of their physical location. Virtual reality is particularly appealing to the oil and gas industry because of the remote nature of many facilities, and the considerable risk and expense incurred by transporting workers for training or design.
Virtual reality headsets have become far cheaper over the past five years or so, and the usage amongst consumers has increased accordingly. However, the majority of this uptake has been within the gaming space and the oil and gas industry has yet to fully embrace the developments of VR.
Virtual reality can provide a safe digital twin of remote assets, allowing oil and gas companies to train new staff in a realistic version of an oil rig, for example, without having to risk disrupting normal operations or incurring the costs of transporting a team to a far-off location. There are also innumerable benefits to stakeholders, who can, in theory, ‘visit’ any part of the company’s operations.
Sometimes referred to as hybrid reality or XR, mixed reality is a blend of virtual reality and other immersion-based tech. Since the mid-1990s, MR has referred to VR applications that have also included an element of haptic feedback – beginning with military systems. Some commentators differ on the relationship between AR and MR, but the most broadly-accepted definition is that augmented reality does not anchor virtual objects in place, whereas MR allows virtual objects to be interacted with as if they were real. There is massive scope for properly-tethered MR assets to revolutionise training and maintenance, but with the industry still trying to get its head around AR – let’s not expect anyone to run before they can walk!
Immersive technology hardware
Immersive tech hardware can be broadly described in one word: headsets. There are applications which project information on windscreens, windows, glass, or other flat surfaces, but the majority of both AR and VR applications require headset capabilities. Headsets are also sometimes referred to as HMDs or head-mounted displays, and include all VR headsets, AR glasses, and MR equipment.
Currently, Realwear are the only company producing AR/VR headsets that are ready for applications in all oil and gas industry locations. Whilst other manufacturers are able to provide headsets that work in various parts of the operation, Realwear’s equipment meets the stringent stress and robustness testing required in the volatile fuel production environment many workers in oil and gas frequently encounter. Microsoft’s HoloLens, the Windows and Acer Mixed Reality Headsets, and the Magic Leap One are some of the leading AR sets that could be utilised for training or logistics purposes in the near future.
VR headsets are a little more famous amongst your average consumer, especially the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Playstation offering, it is the software and training packages that have been marking out companies utilising VR as end-users or solution providers. However, some kits such as the Vive are far more robust than most of the competition and are amongst the frontrunners for uptake en masse.
There are also some dedicated MR sets making their way onto the market, with the most developed being the Windows Mixed Reality project, following on from their HoloLens product. Microsoft’s SharePoint Spaces are a recent development on top of this, allowing designers to create content in fully-rendered mixed reality to be easily shared amongst their team or with their clients. Recent promotional materials from Microsoft make this appear as intuitive and workplace-friendly as document sharing via the Cloud. As an industry in dire need of proper digitalisation, MR strategies could help pave the way for a holistic overhaul.
Immersive technology software
There are dozens of VR software companies producing unique packages that aid companies in many industries. Companies such as TechViz, Holosphere, and Virtalis have been developing software for industry and consumer purposes, but most of the landscape is currently made up of smaller start-ups who are attempting to carve out a niche in a rapidly expanding market. Modern immersive tech products are much more holistic in their approach than those of even a few years ago, with the following applications now commonplace:
- Validation technologies, allowing new designs and business processes to be properly measured and assessed.
- Visualisation of data, especially ‘Big Data’, and the proper presentation of information to allow the workforce to leverage information.
- Training scenarios, allowing simulated situations to be played out and for trainees to have the ability to practice dealing with issues in the workplace.
- On-site monitoring and data collection, and instant reporting.
- EH&S adherence through AR and scanning technology.
Immersive technology trends in 2019
Alongside the development of artificial intelligence and the uptake of machine learning, the proliferation of AR and VR is one of Oil & Gas IQ major predictions for the next few years. However, within that, there are a number of trends that we are expecting to see in the coming months.
Increased training capabilities
With Walmart’s recent acquisition of nearly 20,000 VR headsets, virtual reality training has began its move into the mainstream. Over the course of 2019, we would expect to see companies using VR to train vast swathes of their workforce on new technology and physical equipment before the equipment in question is ever materially installed.
Microsoft’s HoloLens will also see use across the US military’s training scheme, and we would expect to see other militaries follow suit if the deal is a success. Hopefully, the oil and gas industry will then have the confidence to start making serious headway in to this field in the next 12 months.
VR and AR have yet to be properly leveraged (or even marketed) as convenient and sensible ways to reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint. With the public interacting far more with immersive technology, and environmental awareness now far more in vogue, Oil & Gas IQ predict a shift in how VR is marketed to oil and gas companies. Reducing the amount of travelling, particularly for OPEX-related roles, and allowing more employees to work from home, workforces will become more mobile with less travel – having a team of experts instantaneously available. There is also the advantage of general efficiency savings which could have an immeasurable beneficial effect on the amount of resources used. Moving to a fully-coherent immersive technology-enabled business is the most sure-fire way to remain futureproof, and should limit the amount of expenditure and replacement of equipment companies need to front.
VR and AR used in the boardroom
Often losing the limelight to the remote training of rig workers and asset integrity managers, the use of AR and VR solutions in office environments is becoming more and more common. Virtual learning aids such as whiteboards and design documents may replace the simple screen share functionality that nearly every back office worker has used.
Virtual conference calls may also be replaced by VR meeting spaces providing a far more engaging way to remotely interact with colleagues and clients. Hardware sales have increased in the past year, and we would anticipate that companies start to invest – if not as a serious transition to VR and AR, then as a trial that could escalate in 2020 and beyond.
Immersive tech in construction vehicles
Despite autonomous vehicles failing to make any significance headway, there is some real potential for AI-enabled AR to revolutionise the navigation of construction and support vessels in oil and gas. A real echo of its video-game roots, vehicle display AR, sometimes referred to as HUD or heads-up display, allows drivers to see supplementary information about the world outside their windshield on the glass itself. Not only can this be used for navigation, but points of interest and visualisations of tolerances – particularly useful when operating construction equipment – can also be generated. It is also possible to show designs and plans in real time when using construction and maintenance equipment, as well as catalogues and stock information for logistics functions in warehouses or shipyards.
With assets now increasingly costing in excess of half a billion USD, and pressure for environmental compliance ever-greater, the risk profile of oil and gas companies is in constant need of mitigating technology. VR’s main role in risk assessment will be the more commonplace practice of environment simulation – both of physical assets and the surrounding environment.
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AR can supplement this as an ongoing risk mitigation strategy, ensuring workers onsite have access to as much information as possible. We also predict that better communication between workers and key decision-makers will help get diagnostic information to the right person far quicker than is currently the case.
Research and development
Whilst R&D is vital in every industry, the complexity and risk associated with large-scale O&G installations requires a very strong strategy. In 2019, we predict that immersive technology headsets will allow the design and dissemination of prototype rig structures and reduce the expenditure in the early stages of design. Having an application which allows fast design iterations to be viewed and altered remotely by a large design team could be revolutionary for large multinational oil and gas companies, and we expect to see greater use of this in the next twelve months.
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