VR tech thriving in surprising ways in Texas | Crain's Houston

VR tech thriving in surprising ways in Texas

Newpark Mats and Integrated Services makes interlocking mats for oil and gas companies. They are used for creating stable work surfaces and constructing temporary roads that carry heavy equipment and workers to and from rig sites.

Each mat is large – 8-by-14-feet – and heavy – around 1,000 pounds – so training customers on how to put them together is crucial.

The Houston-area company began working with Fuel.Tech to create user-friendly tools so their customers can experience how to install the mats without actually doing it. How? With virtual reality.

“Our people and customers get trained to do it in a safe manner without putting themselves in harm’s way,” said Chris DiCicco, Newpark’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Like other companies around the country, Fuel.Tech has jumped on the VR bandwagon, providing solutions to once staid industries that are now embracing new technologies to improve their operations and save on costs. And while the Houston-based company has carved out a niche on its home turf in the energy sector, Fuel.Tech, not surprisingly, has some competition on the virtual reality front from Texas' tech capital.

Austin-based Chaotic Moon, which was acquired by Accenture in 2015, changed its name to Fjord Austin. It’s worked with oil and gas companies such as ConocoPhillips creating software that helps visualize drilling data, but it’s expanded in the virtual reality field as well.

“We're not shy about our belief that VR is the future,” said John Frémont, Accenture artificial intelligence executive, in a post on Fjord Austin’s website last year.

Fuel.Tech CEO Oliver Diaz founded what was then known as FuelFX in 2012 to provide custom web and mobile apps, 3-D graphics and mixed-reality experiences to companies for training, marketing and operational purposes.

But then the company began developing more immersive environments to give their clients higher-end experiences, such as allowing oil and gas workers to walk around rigs and accomplish tasks. That led the company first into augmented reality – where you change the world around the user – and then into virtual reality – where you put the user in a new reality altogether.

Diaz says the technology has improved dramatically over the years, which has helped convince customers that it’s a valuable tool.

“Before, it was fuzzy; you couldn’t move around a space freely,” he explained. “Now you can move around, get a sense of space, and it’s a lot more kinesthetic. You can turn a screw with a device, the fidelity is so precise.”

Oil and gas companies are predominantly using virtual reality for training, and for good reason: One study by the National Training Laboratory for Applied Behavioral Science found the retention rate for helicopter pilots who learned to land on offshore oil platforms through virtual reality simulation was 75 percent, versus 5 percent for lecture-style learning and 10 percent for reading-based learning.

Luis de la Fuente has also seen it work in practice. He’s a Houston-based training manager at Lloyd’s Register, an engineering, technical and business services organization that launched a VR-based safety simulator at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston this past May. “Some of the younger guys who grew up with video games – they tend to get bored if you lecture to them,” he said. “Virtual reality is more effective.”

Saudi Aramco inaugurated a new virtual reality training center in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, in March. Using headsets developed by Facebook unit Oculus VR and typical computer game controls, operators can virtually “walk” through a processing plant where they encounter several process disruptions, from a simple malfunctioning instrument to a serious leak they must fix.

“This new center is exactly what we need to engage the younger generation of operators,” said Khaled A. Al Buraik, vice president of Saudi Aramco’s southern area oil operation, in a statement announcing the center.

Fuel.Tech’s Diaz said oil and gas companies are also beginning to look at virtual reality for geophysical and seismic visualization as well. “Can we visualize what’s going on down hole on a microscopic level? Can you see inside things, like Iron Man?” Diaz said. “It goes beyond learning and simulating. You can make smart decisions faster.”

Oil and gas managers and traders are even looking at it as a way to sift through large amounts of complex data and visualize it in new ways, including coming up with different scenarios and their outcomes, Diaz says.

Besides Newpark, Fuel.Tech’s other clients include Schafer High Pressure Systems, which makes tank-cleaning systems that don’t require humans to enter the tank. And BP is working with the company on developing a tool that will assess technicians’ competency on offshore platforms.

“I’d like to have my offshore technicians be able to accomplish a task utilizing a device that will instruct them on how to do it,” said Marty Colvin, a mechanical maintenance technician for BP for the Gulf of Mexico.

“Eventually I’d like to have a technician put on some glasses and detect things that you can’t see, like leaks.”

Fuel.Tech merged with information technology services provider Ergos Technologies a few months ago, which should give it the support to expand further into virtual reality. But Diaz says he isn’t going anywhere.

“I believe in the company and the people.”

June 22, 2017 - 10:54am