Roice Nelson

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Roice Nelson
Roice Nelson headshot.png
Latest company Landmark Graphics

SEG is honoring Andy Hildebrand, Bob Limbaugh, John Mouton, and Roice Nelson with the Enterprise Award for founding Landmark Graphics, which revolutionized the manner in which seismic data are interpreted. Roice Nelson was a visionary who built the first interpretation ‘workstation’ out of cardboard and managed to convince others of its potential. John Mouton and Andy Hildebrand provided the scientific and programming expertise that made this vision a reality. Bob Limbaugh sold the dream to clients and venture capitalists alike, providing the financial fuel that got Landmark through the crucial first years.

Biography Citation for the Cecil Green Enterprise Award

Contributed by Roger Anderson

H. Roice Nelson and partners created Landmark Graphics Corporation and made it into a dominant part of a Fortune 100 company in 15 years—a remarkable accomplishment that changed the way our industry operates, and decidedly for the better. This was that rarest feat in science and industry, a true paradigm change.

Landmark began in Roice’s mind and was almost fully conceived when he got his first permanent job at Mobil in 1974. Roice already knew that 3-D seismic interpretation was possible on computer workstations, even though 3-D sur veys were in their infancy, 2-D interpretation was all that was done, and computers were mainframe monsters.

Roice recognized the 3-D nature of horizons and maps when he worked for Pan American (later Amoco) the summer of 1970 and for Amoco the summer of 1973. His senior thesis in 1974 at the University of Utah (for which he used computers to create 3-D perspective drawings) convinced him there was a better way to do interpretation. Roice tried, to no avail, to convince Mobil to build the first 3-D seismic interpretation workstation. It wasn’t all Mobil’s fault. Giant corporations have difficulty accepting paradigm shifts, particularly from within. Roice went from Mobil to the University of Houston, where his brilliance for creating institutions became clear. Roice managed the Allied Geophysical Laboratories (AGL) at the university for three years but, remarkably, implemented five new laboratories. These new labs have produced significant technological leaps.

Roice also implemented the Keck Research Computation Laboratory, the Cullen Image Processing Laboratory, the Well Logging Laboratory, and the Field Research Laboratory, increased sponsoring companies from 33 to 42, funding to $3 million, and personnel from 17 to 65. Now to the creation of Landmark, which is to our industry what Apple and Microsoft are to the computer industry. Landmark started by selling interactive processing on an 8086 chip running MS-DOS, upgraded within six months to an 80286, and then a couple of years later to an 80386 running UNIX. It was an impressive, room-filling cabinet because of the giant discs required to hold the first 3-D surveys. The expositions at recent SEG conventions have been dominated by workstations. This signifies the degree to which Roice changed our industry. Landmark introduced workstations to the exposition in 1983. They had two systems, one in the Landmark booth and one in Control Data Corporation’s booth. They also had a system in the Jockey Club for backup and private demonstrations. This was nine months after funding, and was the true birthing of the company, as Roice often says. We have all experienced Landmark’s revolution, so I’ll not dwell on the technologies. I do point out a related event that changed the educational system of the industry. At Roice’s insistence, Landmark established a University Research Grants program, in which they awarded systems to universities. This has had enormous impact. I know that 4-D, which came from universities like Stanford, Cornell, LSU, Penn State, Delft, and Columbia, would not have happened there without these gifts. In 1991, Roice founded HyperMedia. The company was positioned to become Netscape before Netscape. Unfortunately, Roice was ahead of the technological wave just a hair too far. Significant problems were solved for many companies and consortia but HyperMedia did not make it.

However, venture capitalists look positively on failed, but brilliant start-ups. So Roice had little difficulty starting Continuum Resources International, which is developing (another paradigm shift?) immersive environments to improve information management.

Today, with almost all oil-company research laboratories gone, we must wonder where paradigm-changing technologies will evolve. One hint is to watch Roice. On behalf of SEG, I thank him for continuing in that arduous path.