‘Augmented reality’ turns animation into oil business tool (video)

The same animation technology that brought bumbling green ogres and space ranger action figures to life on the big screen has found an unlikely customer in Houston.

Oil companies are getting animated, and a Houston-area company with capabilities rivaling those of Hollywood studios has responded in a big way.

The artists, programmers and general software geeks at FuelFX have produced a growing volume of animations in recent years for energy companies large and small, CEO Oliver Diaz said. FuelFX’s revenues have surged to $2.2 million last year, from $100,000 in 2009, mainly because of energy industry interest, Diaz said.

Energy companies have turned to animation to help educate the thousands of new, young workers that the industry has recruited during the current oil and gas boom, Diaz said.

“There’s this huge gap in understanding and knowledge and expertise and so they’re really investing a lot more in making sure that the new generation is able to function like the old generation,” Diaz said.

That interest in animation has prompted FuelFX to grow and innovate, he said.

The FuelFX staff, which works out of a 4,000-square-foot Bellaire office decorated with “Star Wars” posters and action figures, is now pushing the envelope with a technology called augmented reality, Diaz said.

That technology has inspired interest across industries, with The Methodist Hospital planning to use it to educate visitors and the Houston Museum of Natural Science exploring a similar option, he said.

Augmented reality 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.

Diaz demonstrated the technology by aiming a tablet at a piece of paper. Through the screen of the tablet, Diaz watched as a dinosaur walked across the table and took a bite out of the page.

The technology could be useful for plant workers, for example, allowing them to look at an object through an iPad, which would display details about the item and could draw information from manuals or repair schedules to help guide the employee.

FuelFX got a chance to show off its augmented reality to the public after making an animation of an abandoned Houston municipal cistern that’s drawing attention for its subterranean light and sound characteristics.

The company has produced graphics that helped to illustrate the response to the 2010 BP oil spill, animated how drills move through underground rocks and demonstrated the capabilities of an offshore oil platform.

Diaz said he thinks FuelFX’s work in augmented reality and simulation will draw increasing interest from customers.

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Companies as familiar as Boeing and BMW have experimented with augmented reality technology for years to help educate workers about their products, said Zhigang Deng, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Houston.

But more businesses are using the technology now because of smart devices with cameras.

Ikea, for example, has an app that allows users to aim a tablet or smartphone camera into a room, then select different furniture items that will appear in the device’s view. The technology allows Ikea customers to see how a couch or a table would actually fit and appear in their homes.

FuelFX’s offerings could help bring an exhibit to life for museum-goers. The local Natural Science museum is considering an option that could allow visitors to hold up a tablet and tap on items that they see through the camera view to pull up details or animations about the objects, Diaz said.

“You can imagine actually having dinosaurs walking around the museum would be kind of neat,” he said.

Some of those working at FuelFX said they got excitement out of the fast-paced business of sculpting 3-D models for hospitals, oil companies and other customers. FuelFX starts by crafting base 3-D models that company specialists can then incorporate into presentations, simulations or augmented reality and virtual reality experiences.

“It’s got to be a passion because it’s tough,” said Nick Schmidt, FuelFX’s 3-D and multimedia art director who was working on an animation of undersea machinery beneath an offshore rig.

Since many new energy industry employees are 30 or under, 3-D graphics have played an important role in educating them and bringing them to a similar level of understanding as older employees who are near retirement, Diaz said.

“They’re used to learning with simulations and 3-D and things like that,” Diaz said. “So they’re realizing that the best way to get those people up to speed with the generation that’s leaving is with these tools and visualizations.

“And there’s a lot more people, too. So you can’t take 100,000 people out on an offshore rig. But if you create a simulation that allows them to feel like they’re out there, you get them 80, 90 percent of the way.”

FuelFX’s augmented reality technology helped attendees experience the inside of the old cistern under Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, said Douglas Smith, co-founder of SmartGeometrics, which provided 3-D scans of the cistern to help build the animation.

“Peoples’ jaws literally dropped when they saw it,” Smith said.

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Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership said using a tablet to look into a 3-D model of the cistern offered important perspective on an otherwise inaccessible site.

“If we decide to move forward and get ideas as to what it should be, people just don’t have the opportunity to go down there,” Olson said. “So that’s why it was such a great resource.”

So far, augmented reality has been a hard sell to many of the largest of oil companies, Diaz said.

Engineers at seismic software company Paradigm have found 3-D graphics from FuelFX helpful and informative, said Samhita Shah, director of marketing communications for the company. But for now, the main attraction for Paradigm is still basic 3D graphics and videos, not augmented reality, Shah said.

Even companies that use FuelFX’s services and see the value in its oil industry-oriented animations have had trouble buying into the idea that a worker could be more productive by tapping on a tablet device. Diaz was optimistic that initial interest from some oil companies would grow into actual usage.

“If you lead, you bleed, sort of is the old saying,” Diaz said. “And that’s kind of where we’re at right now. We’re bleeding a little bit, but we know that this is where learning and communication is going and we’re making sure that we’re positioned for it when it becomes very common and everyone starts asking for it.”

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