Attendees at the 2012 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) couldn't stop themselves from staring at the Hardsuit on display at the OceanWorks booth. A bulbous six-foot apparatus resembling a cross between the Michelin Man and a 19th century diving suit, the device is one of the most advanced machines available today, allowing workers to install and fix equipment up to 2,000 feet below water.
"It's pretty much just a man-shaped submarine," explained OceanWorks spokesperson Derek White. "You have the power and imaging a remote unit would have, but with the three-dimensional awareness of a human diver."
Two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon accident killed 11 crewman and spewed crude into the Gulf for three straight months, safety has become a major theme at the OTC.
While it has manufactured suits for military use throughout Europe and Asia, White said the company is focusing on the commercial sector this week, tapping into the oil and gas industry's need for high-tech devices to perform underwater safety inspections.
"We estimate users get about 70 percent mobility as compared standard diving," he said. "We haven't had any serious incidents since we started in 1986."
Two years after the BP Deepwater Horizon accident killed 11 crewman and spewed crude into the Gulf for three straight months, safety has become a major theme at the OTC — the annual conference that draws more than 50,000 high-powered visitors to Houston each year.
A quick scan of the breakfast and lunch sessions reveals titles such as "Oil Spills, Ethics, and Society" alongside talks like "Unlocking Stranded Offshore Gas," "Deepwater Adventure in West Africa" and other topics one would expect from the world's largest petroleum-themed gathering.
Monday morning even saw a candid BP event "Managing Risk and Building Value," in which the company discussed lessons learned from the 2010 Gulf spill.
On the trade floor, the tone was far from somber as companies vied for attention with gourmet lunches, es presso drinks and wine tastings.
On the trade floor in the Reliant Center, however, the tone was far from somber as companies vied for attention with gourmet lunches, espresso drinks and wine tastings. (When you sell something called a "bladder accumulator," you need all the help you can get.)
"Yeah, the booths definitely get a little higher each year," laughed Jaime McClellan, a riser designer with Peribus International who told CultureMap she started attending OTC in 2007.
No doubt, the OTC is a bit of a boys club. A large two-story booth by Siemens Energy was drawing a crowd as two men in suits raced cars across a 10-foot video screen for the chance to win an iPad 3. The competition took a quick break for a lady guitar player performing ZZ Top's "La Grange."
Alco Valves Group appeared to have taken the if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach this year, embracing the testosterone head-on by wooing visitors with Hooters Girls who presented coupons for the restaurant's fried pickles. Offer expires May 31, 2012.