A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

It's no secret that the events and conferences of the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for a Houston entrepreneur who's worked for over a decade in event production, she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, has had to reinvent the way brands and companies could interact with their audiences and get their message out.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

InnovationMap: You’ve previously said you became a business owner, almost by accident. How did you decide to start a business?

Tracey Shappro: I never intended to be a business owner. I started the company, simply out of really a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. I had been working at another production company on staff for 13 years as their senior producer. One day the owner announced that he was shutting the doors down literally that same day, and I, like everyone else that worked at that company, was suddenly unemployed.

But at the same time, I was in the middle of producing all of these important projects for clients. There was just no way I was going to let these people down, and I put my own money into starting a company really quickly. I just thought I was going to finish these projects and then look for a full-time job. But, you know, fast forward that was 10 years ago.

VISION is celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a very impressive client roster started with one employee and we've grown to 10 people who are very talented producers and editors and the animators, and we have creative visual artists on staff. And through that time, we've also expanded our service offering from our core in video production to all types of event production services, and we've expanded it to interactive and virtual reality and augmented reality, projection mapping.

IM: VISION has been creating immersive experiences for Greater Houston Partnership, major sports events from the Super Bowl to the Houston Rodeo. How has technology like virtual and augmented reality and 3D mapping influenced Houston’s biggest events?

TS: Well, we're in the business of what I call experience design. We look at all the stakeholders, the clients, sponsors, attendees as the stakeholders or the audience, and we understand storytelling and the producing of content. We use all of that to create perspective and to create an experience and in tandem with that, we seek out the right presentation technology to exceed that goal to use technology to persuade, and influence opinions, change perceptions.

For all the clients that you just mentioned, we use appropriate technology, but it's not technology just for technology's sake. It has to have to work and it has to work for the audience and the intended audience, whether it's a live event, or a side of a building where we're doing projection mapping. These days, we're doing more streamed events or a pre-produced packaged event.

We're doing a lot of permanent installation and interactive touch and, and even augmented reality, which is taking off for a lot of corporate clients who are wanting to really showcase their projects or their products and how they work.

IM: The cancelation of the Houston Rodeo has affected many vendors and business owners. How has this affected VISION and its employees?

TS: Well, it's really strange and surreal across industries, many businesses and organizations are right now facing you know canceling or postponing their events or their meetings or conferences. These are engagements that they really depend on. All of these companies still have a need to get their message out and they still have a need to engage their customer and they need to sell the products or services and they need to enlist support for that.

None of that goes away. Right now this is an opportunity really for VISION to do what we do best. We help companies engage their target audiences in innovative and effective ways. We're encouraging our clients now to really shift their thinking. Instead of canceling their event, we're showing them how to reinvent their events into an alternate format.

At times when you can't meet face to face, it puts a need on more of the other things like pre-produced package events, and marketing and virtual meetings and all types of streamed events. All these things become even better business tools, and we have been in this business for a long time. It's really working with our clients to protect developing business.

We're taking the same experience that they want it to originate through live event execution and crafting it and reshaping it into a visual and sensory experience that they can still engage their audiences with remotely or bringing a brand to life remotely.

IM: As the coronavirus outbreak continues and people take social distancing measures seriously, how do you see this affecting projects for this year? How will you adapt?

TS: We actually have a pretty robust plan, in anticipation of all of this we assigned teams. We have a communication strategy, and it's in full gear for two to four weeks. So we were prepared to do all of this from home and remotely.

The thing that changes is some of the tools we use. Obviously, live events are not going to be the main focus right now, but there are other tools like staging and production. And so again, we shift to our virtual service offerings. And no matter what we're doing, clients will need our strategy. They need our producer services, they need our production management, and they need our expertise. It's just the end deliverable.

IM: How can technology help during this crisis? Does this expand or contract business?

TS: Technology is evolving. We know, it's our job to keep abreast of it. And we strive to stay one step ahead of it. And augmented reality and virtual reality is a great example. Several years ago, we went down the path of virtual reality and helped clients really understand that type of immersive experience. And then augmented reality really took off.

We've been leaders in offering all types of augmented reality services. It's really very exciting. It's like surfing the world, if you will, with your own layer, augmented reality over it. The possibilities are just endless.

But now looking at the situation we're in with the coronavirus all of these technologies are even more important. We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences. And I think this position is really, going to help our clients make the right decisions and they can have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences. We're working right now with two clients in a very progressive manner.

IM: What are those two projects and how have they pivoted?

TS: We're working with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Every year we produce their 1,800 attendees annual luncheon, showcasing Steven Kleinberg's renowned Houston area survey, which is a coveted piece of information and data that helps steer the community forward. We've shifted into producing and packaging their thought of it now into a pre-produced virtual experience that will air at the same time as the original luncheon. It will be available online in perpetuity for probably a year until the next one.

We're still able to use technology to still engage their audience and this will actually extend their audience to new audiences that may not have participated before, and we're also in pre-production of a broadcast version of the Holocaust Museum Houston's Moral Courage Award. It will be just like turning on a television show — we're taking them from the original goals of the live event and producing it into a 60-minute show that they can now send out to their attendees, who can still participate and we can still honor all these great amazing people who are deserving of the moral courage award. We can help them grow their audiences through virtual technology.

So again, what is the need? What is the goal, what is the best technology to use to create impact and to share brand stories? We can use our storytelling and capabilities and our production value for a really great experience for viewers at home who are watching this to be engaged in.

IM: What's next for VISION?

TS: We're going to do everything we can to help our clients in these very strange times. We're going to be leaders in helping them push out their objectives. We're going to step up and do what we can to help people communicate with you times like these, you know, communication is key. We do this for a living and we really want to help make a difference. We care. We know our clients care, and right now we're going to focus on helping our clients connect.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity.

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

XR express

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says.

As more companies are introducing this type of technology into the workforce, there's a growing need for developers and experts to design these programs. Currently, it's rare for a company to have employees with XR expertise.

"Working on commercial accounts, I see a lot of customers who have done enterprise software — web pages and forums — but it's a very different skill set from simulations," says Jared Bienz, senior software engineer at Microsoft.

So, companies are faced with hiring developers and designers to create these training programs. Ethan LeSueur, who oversees immersive technology at ExxonMobil, says his team benefitted from the cut-throat game design industry. So many developers want to go into video game creation, but there's not enough jobs. At Exxon, developers get to create games — but for training purposes. LeSueur says he looks for a diversity of programming experience when hiring for these types of jobs.

"It's important to not have one skill set," he says. "We're looking for the people who are sort of a swiss army knife. You don't have to know everything, but if they have more than one specific skill set, that's really important."

But hiring a team might not be the only option to AR/VR development. Working with startups has been an avenue for major companies seeking out XR programs.

"People talk about digital transformation all the time, but half the time we wouldn't know what that looked like if that slapped us in the face," LeSueur says. "That's what we're asking startups to do — help slap us in the face."

LeSueur says that proving cost effectiveness is extremely important for startups looking to win big companies as clients, but so is passion. The complexity of the process as well as all the red tap of business calls for passion from a startup.

"We're trying to take a complicated physical process and digitize it," LeSueur says. "That means there's going to be a lot of back and forth."

From the startup perspective, it's not always easy working with major corporations – especially within oil and gas. Amanda, who works with construction clients and larger companies as an instructor at ITI, recommends having someone on the inside to look out for you.

"I think it's really important to have an internal champion who really owns the product and wants to see it through to its last degree of integration."

On display

Courtesy of Station Houston

After the panel, Station Houston VR companies showed off their programming.

The majority of McCarthy Building Companies' projects now include some sort of virtual or augmented reality technology. Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

Houston-area construction team utilizes technology to solve problems

Reality real estate

In recent years, the construction industry has begun embraced advancements in reality technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. While it has yet to reach critical mass in the industry, several contracting companies in the Houston region like McCarthy Building Companies are embracing the technology and blazing the trail for the construction industry.

Chris Patton, virtual design and construction manager for McCarthy's southern region, says many construction companies are consistently looking for ways to improve processes and procedures through reality technology.

"We really saw the potential and use cases for [VR] really early on, and it was really just a matter of the hardware and the software catching up to being something usable, consumable, deployable and cost effective on our projects," Patton says. "We were sitting there waiting for it and ready to go when it was."

Patton says these visualization tools have changed the way contractors display projects and have helped the partners on these projects — such as the design team, building owner and subcontractors — make better informed decisions earlier, more quickly and sometimes at a cheaper price point.

Before AR and VR technology entered the construction industry, companies either had to work with two-dimensional construction drawings or build very expensive, three-dimensional models, or mock ups, of construction sites that allowed clients to physically walk through a building space to interact with its features. Patton says the entire mock-up building process used to cost roughly $1 million — depending on the project size.

However, now this costly and time-consuming process is a thing of the past, as construction companies have found a way to utilize AR and VR technology to bring clients into a computer-generated environment. By putting on an AR or VR helmet, clients can immerse themselves and engage in a virtual environment that shows them all of the project's details and allows them to move about a virtual construction site the same way they would in a 3D model.

McCarthy's Houston division began utilizing reality technology in early 2015, with some of its other markets integrating the technology into their practices in late 2014. Since then, the company's use of AR and VR technology has grown exponentially, Patton says.

"When we first started evaluating and looking at virtual reality and augmented reality, [we] might have [used it on] one or two projects a year, and that was probably three years ago," Patton says. "Today, I'd say almost 60-75 percent of our projects—at some point in design or construction — utilize virtual reality or augmented reality or a combination of both."

Although McCarthy has been around since 1864, the general contracting company made its Texas debut in Dallas in 1981. Since then McCarthy expanded to create a Houston office in 2011, building a portfolio of renowned Houston clients such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas Children's Hospital as well as the recent completion of Houston ISD's Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

A notable project McCarthy's Houston Division took on was phase one the MFAH's master plan that included building The Glassell School of Art. The company also continues its work on phase two, which includes new developments for the MFAH for which McCarthy's virtual design and construction group created VR and AR models for the museum.

By using software like HoloLive and Fuzor for AR technology and Fuzor for VR technology, McCarthy's VDC group can visualize and combine digital creations with the real world, Patton says. With the growing number of projects utilizing the technology, Patton says McCarthy has invested greatly in personnel who will help grow the VDC group and continue to look for advancements in the construction industry.

"Some of the folks that we have those [VDC] positions in our company, some of them come from construction technology backgrounds and construction management backgrounds but others come from graphical design and have like a gaming background, some come from architectural backgrounds," Patton says. "[Reality technology] really kind of opened the door to a new opportunity for people to get engaged with the construction industry that we hadn't seen in the past."

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston company has sight set on AR solutions for industrial construction

Visual aid

When Lori-Lee Emshey got her first oil and gas construction job in Australia, she was carrying around a backpack full of papers.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She realized that it wasn't just that site or the company she was working for — this was a problem across the industry. So, she came up with a solution. Houston-based Future Sight AR is an augmented reality technology to more efficient work on industrial construction sites. Workers can use a smart device in the field, point it at a problem on site, log the issue, and see the steps needed to fix it.

Constructing a company
Emshey realized the potential for a company in January 2016. Since then, she's partnered up with her co-founders, Sofia Lazaro and Veena Somareddy, attended accelerators and conferences across the country, completed a proof of concept, until finally incorporated this year.

It was a well-paced start for the company because they got to prove time and time again there was a need for the company. Emshey says she never wanted to start a company just to start a company. They worked tirelessly at the beginning to ensure there was no one out there already doing this in the way they were doing it.

"I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs now become an entrepreneur because it's trendy and cool, and you want to put it in your Instagram bio," she says. "The three of us aren't like that. We did this because we had to. It wasn't going to get done another way, and we couldn't let this giant opportunity float on by."

Once they got a firm footing, one of the challenges they faced was communicating the company's market need and how the technology works to individuals outside the industry. For Emshey, this was particularly annoying.

"I came from a journalism background, and it's storytelling," she says. "I thought, 'I should be able to do this.'"

Something eventually just clicked, and Emshey stopped seeing confused faces in response to her presentation, and she started seeing more head nodding. However, another challenge she says she occasionally faces is how she looks.

"It is tough. I'm pitching this industrial construction startup, and I show up and I'm a 5-foot-5 blond woman," she says. "And some people don't care, and some people would prefer I looked a different way."

Foreseeing the company's future
Raising capital has been the latest focus for Future Sight AR. Aside from some grants and accelerator money, the company hasn't raised much. They've only just started meeting with investors and have a plan to launch a round of fundraising next year. Emshey also says they are looking to partner with three companies to conduct a few pilots early next year.

It's a great time in technology for Future Sight AR as more and more people are using AR and virtual reality. People use AR or VR often — in SnapChat filters or through Pokemon Go!

Emshey says she thinks VR will grow first in gaming, while AR will take off through enterprise.

"Unlike VR when you're completely immersed, in AR, you're seeing your actual environment and one of the places you have to do that is at work," Emshey says.

Whether it's through being acquired or growing the company on its own, Emshey says she wants Future Sight AR to evolve the industry as a whole.

"If we could permanently change the way that we build projects — oil and gas or another industry — and move it toward something more efficient, safer, more productive, and a better experience for workers, and accomplish that in a permanent way in a permanent way, then we're successful," she says. "We really built this for me — I was the worker out in the field trying to do things, and it was unnecessarily difficult."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

These are the 10 most promising energy tech startups, according to judges at Rice Alliance forum

best of the best

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

Amazon unlocks 2 prime brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area

THAT'S SOME PRIME SHOPPING

The juggernaut that is Amazon considers to rule the universe and expand. Now, local fans of Jeff Bezos' digital behemoth can look forward to two new brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area.

Amazon announced the opening of two Houston stores on September 18: Amazon 4-star in The Woodlands Mall and Amazon Books in Baybrook Mall.

For the uninitiated, the Amazon 4-star is a new store that carries highly rated products from the top categories across all of Amazon.com — including devices, consumer electronics, kitchen, home, toys, books, games, and more.

As the name implies, all products are rated four stars and above by Amazon customers. Other determinants include the item being a top seller, or if it is new and trending on Amazon.com, according to a press release.

Shoppers can expect fun features such as "Bring Your Own Pumpkin Spice," "Stay Connected Home Tech for Work and Play," "Fresh Off the Screen," and "Trending Around Houston" to discover must-have products. The Woodlands Amazon 4-star (1201 Lake Woodlands Dr.) is the 23rd Amazon 4-star location nationwide.

Meanwhile, shoppers in Baybrook Mall's Amazon Books (1132 Baybrook Mall Dr.) can expect myriad titles rated as customer favorites, whether trending on the site, devices, or listed as customer favorites. Amazon Books in the Baybrook Mall is the 23rd Amazon Books location nationwide.

Books customers can shop cookbooks alongside a highly curated selection of cooking tools, as well as, popular toys, games, and other home items. Amazon Books is open to all: Prime members pay the Amazon.com price in store, and customers who aren't already Prime members can sign up for a free 30-day trial and instantly receive the Amazon.com price in store, according a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.