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FuelFX, SKV Deliver Virtual Environments for Real-World Justice


HOUSTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--There’s been persistent news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy—which resulted in 11 deaths and the largest oil spill in U.S. history—including the recent not-guilty verdict for former BP rig-supervisor Robert Kaluza on criminal charges alleging he negligently caused the accident. Overlooked to date is the key role of groundbreaking virtual reality-enabled interactive 3D presentation tools and gamification technology in mounting Kaluza’s defense. The New Orleans federal trial featured a collaborative effort between Texas high-tech firm Fuel.Tech and litigation-boutique Smyser Kaplan & Veselka (SKV), whose development and deployment of experiential media weighed prominently on jurors at trial.

Kaluza’s legal nightmare began on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon crew performed a test to confirm the integrity of the well. The U.S. government alleged that Kaluza misinterpreted the test, thereby causing the blowout later that night. In late 2012, the government charged Kaluza with 23 counts of manslaughter and water pollution.

At the February 2016 trial, Kaluza’s legal team’s task was clear: tell the jury the whole story, compellingly demonstrating that Kaluza did nothing wrong—and that other complex failures after Kaluza’s shift ended caused the accident. This would require SKV Partners Dane Ball and Shaun Clarke and David Gerger of Quinn Emmanuel to convey complicated factual concepts to jurors who had never set foot on an offshore rig.

Through many hours of consultation and research with SKV, Fuel.Tech's industry-largest team of 3D developers leveraged schematics, photos, video, CAD® files, and other references to develop assets and model the entire Deepwater Horizon rig (pictured) in 3D space from the seafloor up. A combination of 3ds Max® and Substance Painter™ software generated textured, high-resolution virtual simulated environments—that when combined with the Unity® game engine and a few proprietary FuelFX plugins, could accommodate mass viewing, touchscreen interaction, and personalized virtual reality via wearable devices such as the Oculus® Rift™. Practical constraints required a less-immersive experience that jurors could view simultaneously, but the ability to place jurors at the center of the action with striking granularity and fidelity to real-world details was undiminished.

The defense gave intricate explanations of several failures that led to the accident, supported by state-of-the-art visuals that virtually transported viewers to the scene. For example, the blowout preventer (or BOP, pictured), was painstakingly recreated digitally to ensure structural accuracy and establish its relative position on the seafloor. Layers and parts could be digitally removed and manipulated to study the location and operation of components meant to seal the well and block hydrocarbon flow. Pairing the animation with expert testimony taught jurors which components failed and why.

“The 3D media and technology made it easy for jurors to understand how the blowout preventer should have functioned to maintain well control and how and why it failed during the blowout,” explained Kaluza.

The comprehensive visual experience included a spatially accurate “flyaround” viewing of labeled facilities and equipment aboard the rig, and the ability to navigate to a simulation of BP’s corporate office in Houston—including individual desks and computer screens reflecting activities before the accident.

One challenge was creating media that reflected vital information without always knowing in advance what a witness would say at trial. To address this, the visuals were adaptable to the evidence at trial: in scenarios where multiple individuals were engaged in activities, on-screen avatars could be relocated and reassigned to reflect where the corresponding people were located, or what they were doing, at a particular moment. Audience members were offered a first-person view while touring various locations in the one-to-one scaled virtual environment, and the vantage points of individual avatars could be commandeered to experience their unique perspectives.

After a two-week trial, the jury found that Kaluza acted as a reasonably prudent wellsite leader and did not cause the accident. For SKV Partner Ball and FuelFX Founder and Chairman Oliver Diaz, it’s all in a day’s work.

“Being a great trial lawyer requires the ability to make complex issues simple for a jury. 3D animation is becoming a powerful tool to do that—and this case was a perfect example,” Ball said.

“The use of 3D and interactive technology really helps bridge the gap between the technical and non-technical, and a visual medium like this can empower regular people to process very esoteric concepts,” added Diaz. “It was compelling and effective to help someone in a courtroom see what the incident was all about, by letting them experience it from the perspective of those who were actually there.”

In the end, interactive immersive technologies like 3D and virtual reality helped prove not just one man’s innocence, but their own applicability to various verticals beyond the video gaming world to anywhere complex information and concepts must be conveyed. With FuelFX and SKV leading the way, the possibilities will only continue to grow.

Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, L.L.P. is one of the premier litigation boutiques in the country. SKV’s white-collar lawyers have played major roles in some of the most significant criminal matters in U.S. legal history—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the fall of Enron; MLB’s steroid scandal; a post-hurricane Katrina investigation into alleged euthanasia by a hospital; the Boney Island LNG Project FCPA investigation; and the BP commodities-trading case. SKV’s civil trial lawyers have successfully represented companies across the globe in multimillion, and sometimes multibillion, dollar cases.

Source: Business Wire