ho ho ho

Santa Claus is coming to a Houston-area town in an innovative way

It's 2020 and Santa is coming to town via technology, kids. Photo via MAGI·SPHERE

Christmas may look a little different this year, but that doesn't mean Santa isn't coming to town. While a family picture with Santa is a seasonal staple for your mantel, the CDC guidelines aren't exactly conducive to a photo on Kriss Kringle's lap. The recently debuted MAGI·SPHERE installation at Sugar Land Town Square is helping patrons interact with Santa in a safe way.

Mall Santas have long been the stars of holiday cards and Christmas movies. As shopping centers across America grappled with how to safely create holiday experiences, a slew of options and ideas were deployed to assuage shoppers. Some Santas have donned face shields, others wave to children from behind plexiglass, few are booking online experiences with retailers like Macy's, and many are taking this Christmas season off for health concerns.

Like many destinations around the U.S., Sugar Land Town Square pivoted to an untraditional holiday experience. The MAGI·SPHERE, located on the plaza deck, is a holographic snow globe that allows visitors to interact and share their holiday wishes with a 3D projection of Santa Claus in real-time. The installation was created by Flight School Studio, a Dallas-based creative team that specializes in interactive activations, and uses proprietary technology.

Santa's MAGI·SPHERE in Sugar Land Texas www.youtube.com

"That's what we challenged them with. On a tough year when kids have been stuck at home, can you create a little bit of magic?" said Matt Ragan, a Sugar Land Town Square representative, of the partnership with Flight School Studio in an interview on "Houston Life."

The MAGI·SPHERE's Santa isn't just a scripted hologram—the Santa can interact and have a two-way dialogue similar to an in-person meet-and-greet. Flight School Studio deployed facial recognition software to create an animated holograph of Santa that captures the nuances and movements of a nearby actor's face. As the actor playing Santa watches a video feed of guests and communicates from a separate room, the animated avatar reflects his gestures.

"The use of emerging technology allows us to make storytelling and experiences much more extraordinary. This is especially impactful when re-inventing such a longstanding holiday tradition," says Brandon Oldenburg, chief creative officer of Flight School Studio, in a statement.

The MAGI·SPHERE is just a taste of the activations Flight School Studio plans on bringing to the center. The studio's forthcoming brick and mortar location is slated to open at Sugar Land Town Square in early 2021. The 9,000-square-foot space will blend physical sets with technologies, including projection mapping, augmented reality, 3D animation, haptics, motion tracking, lighting, and sound.

"We can't wait to show the world more of what we have in store, while also putting our home state of Texas and the Houston area at the forefront of both mixed reality and how the retail environment is being reimagined for the future," Oldenburg says in a press release.

Families can visit the MAGI·SPHERE through Dec. 24 by making an appointment online or using the on-site queuing system. Social distancing and face masks in common areas will be enforced throughout the experience.

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Building Houston

 
 

The SBA announced plans to open 20 new centers to serve female entrepreneurs — and one is coming to the Houston area. Photo via Getty Images

The Houston area is benefitting from national funding that will be dedicated to creating female-focused resource centers across the country.

The United States Small Business Administration announced grant funding to launch 20 new Women's Business Centers (WBC) across the country. The centers, which are slated to go into rural and underserved markets, will also be partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

With the funds from the grant and through a partnership with the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce, the new center will rise in Northeast Houston to serve the Montgomery, East Harris and Chambers' Counties.

"We are incredibly excited that an organization as prominent as the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce is joining the SBA team," says Tim Jeffcoat, director if the SBA in Houston. "We are looking forward to working with them to empower women-owned businesses in Houston to reach new heights of success."

These new efforts represent the largest expansion of the WBC program in its 30-year existence.

"We are thrilled to partner with the SBA in opening another Women's Business Center, providing resources and tools for our region's women-led organizations to launch and expand," says Suzan Deison, CEO, president and founder of the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce. "We are honored the SBA chose to partner with us to expand needed services in Montgomery, East Harris & Chambers' counties, especially during these challenging times."

The SBA has 136 centers open across the country, and each offers business counseling, training, networking, workshops, and more to area female entrepreneurs.

"Opening the doors to the new Women's Business Centers is crucial to the vitality of women-owned small business owners. This network expansion will provide female entrepreneurs with the resources they need to start, grow, and expand their businesses," says Associate Administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development Allen Gutierrez. "We look forward to the continued success of the WBC program as it contributes to the overall health of our economy and creates jobs in their local communities."

According to the release, the timing of these new centers is especially important as entrepreneurs continue to be challenged amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Over the past several months, we have seen Women's Business Centers provide aid to our nation's innovative and determined entrepreneurs, allowing countless small business owners to pivot with confidence to stay afloat during the pandemic," says SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. "Expanding the WBC program is part of this Administration's longstanding commitment to the success of female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses. Adding these new Women's Business Centers to the already existing network of centers across America will boost timely resources to our nation's female economic drivers, providing them with local training and counseling."

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