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 Texaswww.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

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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