Visualization and Volume Interpretation in Geoscience: 3-D Seismic and Beyond

Steven R. May

Steven R. May
ExxonMobil Upstream Research, Houston, Texas

Monday, October 20th, 2003 – 11:30 AM MST
Telus Convention Centre 8th Ave SE, Calgary


Volume interpretation technologies are revolutionizing the way geoscientists interpret seismic data and engineers evaluate reservoirs, thereby improving the accuracy of subsurface predictions. The development and application of visualization and volume interpretation technologies within petroleum geoscience has experienced rapid change within the past decade. This history provides an interesting case study of technology evolution from early ideas, to application, to visions of the future. It is one of those cases where the technology, the data, the questions, and the geoscientists came together at the right time to permit significant advances and major impact. It is also a story about the occasional tension between technology and science.

Volume interpretation and visualization capabilities are derived from the integration of powerful computers, advanced display technology, commercial and proprietary software, and comprehensive geoscience skills. Visualization techniques are designed for the viewing of multi-dimensional data while volume interpretation techniques are designed for the analysis of multi-dimensional data. These are technologies that improve the quality and efficiency of 3-D seismic interpretation, provide new capabilities for collaboration, and provide an environment for improved integration.

Volume interpretation evolved out of visualization. Initially, we were simply looking at horizons and faults, using opacity and color with volume rendering, and doing simple seed detection. Because of the synergy between hardware and software developments, and a dedicated focus on research and application, volume interpretation is having an increasingly larger impact on a variety of activities including: reconnaissance of new 3-D seismic data volumes, rapid screening and extraction of hydrocarbon related seismic anomalies, rapid mapping of horizons and faults, multi-attribute characterization of reservoirs for use in geologic modeling and flow simulation, seismic processing, and interactive 3-D well planning. We will discuss the evolution of these technologies from the perspective of different organizations and describe how they fit within the overall workflow of upstream geoscience. A variety of examples will illustrate the application and impact of volume interpretation for geoscience and engineering activities including fault interpretation, reservoir characterization, and hydrocarbon systems analysis.

Though volume interpretation and visualization technologies have become common place in upstream geoscience, and their value to our business has been demonstrated, the full realization of their impact remains ahead of us. We are investigating how immersive and multi-sensory interpretation techniques will improve the way we interpret our subsurface data and communicate with others. Although numerous challenges must be overcome before these technologies are ready for general application, the future holds great promise. Effective remote collaboration technology is now capable of facilitating visualization and volume interpretation collaboration at a global scale allowing more rapid dissemination of ideas, technology and expertise across a broad portfolio of business ventures. Although application of these technologies for 3-D seismic interpretation and geoscience-engineering integration will continue to be very important, application for the purposes of knowledge capitalization will eventually have profound impact. Sedimentary basins and their associated hydrocarbon systems are complex systems about which we are trying to make very specific predictions. Visualization and volume interpretation have an exciting future as tools to be used in the search for patterns within these systems, and from those patterns, improved understanding.


Experience: 1985-Present: ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company (formerly Exxon Production Research), Houston, Texas

Research Activities: Plate Reconstruction and Paleogeography, Regional Tectonics, Basin Analysis, Hydrocarbon Migration, Visualization and Volume Interpretation. 1995-2002: Research Geologist and Technical Team Lead for ExxonMobil Visualization and Volume Interpretation Group. Currently responsible for technical integration on a research project targeting new exploration concepts through integration of geodynamics, basin modeling, and play element prediction technologies.

Publications: Papers and abstracts on 3-D seismic interpretation and visualization; basin evolution; applications of paleomagnetism for hydrocarbon migration, plate motion, and tectonics. Co-author of "Interactive Seismic Facies Classification Using Textural Attributes and Neural Networks," (Awarded Best Paper of 2002 in SEG's The Leading Edge).

1979; University of California – Riverside; B.S., Geology
1981: University of California – Riverside; M.S., Geology
1985:University of Arizona; Ph.D., Geoscience
(Jurassic Paleomagnetism, North American Plate Motion, and Cordilleran Tectonics)