With its fourth location recently opened, Texas winery Messina Hof has also launched an innovative augmented reality experience. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.

Virtual reality is a buzzword, but used correctly it can also be a pivotal business tool for external and internal uses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Is virtual reality just trendy tech or a viable business solution?

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Due to the pandemic, various technologies have accelerated into the spotlight – one of which being virtual reality. As many begin to decipher the unique ways to connect with audiences, the question becomes: is virtual reality just a shiny toy to have, or is it a practical business opportunity?

The VR experience

Virtual Reality (VR), which most confuse with augmented reality (AR), is a digital, immersive environment a user can place themselves into as opposed to a digital reality that is based on a real-world environment. VR requires a wearable headset to immerse the user in a 3-D environment.

True VR is built digitally and to room scale. The environments people are placed in are constructed entirely in 3-D and are then brought into a program application. Once everything is entered into the system, the technology begins "talking to" the headset and sensors. These devices track where users are in relation to the environment – and allow them to interact with their digital surroundings. This VR programming "tells" the headset what it needs to show in order to trick the eyes and brain into believing a user is "there".

The role VR plays

Often times, my company, VISION Production Group, receives requests and interest from businesses inquiring about a VR project. These conversations involve a deeper dive into understanding the purpose behind the want for the technology, the target audience and the intended deployment strategy. People commonly mistake VR for other technologies or simply are interested in it for its curb appeal.

Yes, virtual reality is a buzzword, but used correctly it can also be a pivotal business tool for external and internal uses.

External facing VR not only allows companies to take advantage of VR's charm, but also creates a one of kind experience for customers. VISION was tasked by an offshore oil and gas company to create a VR experience that lives at the bottom of the sea floor. This would allow the oil and gas company's customer to see a part of the process that would otherwise be extremely difficult to facilitate. The experience took users into a guided submarine tour where they were accompanied by others using the headsets. The environment not only showcased a faraway destination but also incorporated important details such as textures of the submarine that allows it to feel like they are truly there.

In addition to the promising use of VR externally, VR can also be used as training tools internally. Many scenario-based onboarding tasks can be difficult to facilitate such as: active shooter trainings, offshore emergency drills, and other safety simulations. Many corporate companies are turning to VR to allow for safe, cost effective and transportable safety trainings. This is an excellent application that allows companies to create situations that would otherwise be difficult to arrange.

Understanding VR's value proposition

VR is different than most technologies. It's not something that can be shared on the web or can be downloaded on an app – it requires deployment and gear. That said, VR is a commonly misunderstood tactic that without the proper strategic thinking can be a limited investment. However, those who are able to take advantage of the distinctive characteristics of VR and apply them correctly are in an ideal position to succeed. Not only can VR create a special experience it can also be a fiscally savvy option for those not looking to take submarine trips every day to the bottom of the sea or facilitate a dangerous training scenario.

The future of VR

As mentioned, most technology has accelerated due to the pandemic, but VR has actually been limited due to the idea of sharing a headset and gathering people together for an experience. Although, the pandemic has suppressed VR's uses, the technology advancements continue to grow rapidly.

Those who can comprehend VR for what it is and see it as more than just a buzzword will have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a new reality.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

Now is the time to invest and embrace new technology or else you run the risk of being left behind. Photo via Getty Images

Expert: This is the difference AR can make in your business

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In our most recent article, we spoke to how you can strategize your company's technology adoption. One of the methods mentioned was augmented reality, which is the overlaying of digitally created content on top of the real world. This allows the user to interact with both the real world and digital elements or augmentations.

Currently, the market is saturated with digital content and everyday businesses are trying to decipher new ways to stand out. Now, connecting with an audience must go above and beyond passive digital content and take an innovative, interactive approach.

That said, engaging technology and content should not be used solely to grab attention, but rather be implemented in a strategic way. Glitzy technology such as AR is an excellent way to pique an audience's initial interest, but the real challenge is not getting them to come, it's getting them to stay.

User tendencies

Augmented reality affords brands the opportunity to utilize unique technology in a way that attracts users and immerses them in an experience from start to finish that passive digital content cannot accomplish. To create this enticing experience, the first step is to understand user tendencies.

For example, some users prefer to watch content but not listen. With that in mind, it's important that your content is created and designed in a way that can be enjoyed without audio. Thinking through what type of user you are targeting will inspire efforts that resonate with them most.

The next key tendency to keep in mind is user patience. Consumers are constantly fed new content daily and are becoming desensitized to digital mediums, and in order to make a lasting impression a producer is tasked with creating an impactful moment within the first five seconds of the user's interaction. From there, this will most likely prompt the user to click, listen to the audio and experience the full content.

Lastly, having a clear explanation of what app is needed and how they can operate the technology is key to AR success.

Identifying the right audience

As mentioned, AR is a great tool that checks many boxes for companies. However, before you can begin checking those boxes, you must address what your needs are first. These goals will vary dependent upon the type of company — B2C or B2B.

B2B companies must keep in mind that their purchaser is most likely not the end technology user. For these strategies, technology will most likely be implemented by a sales team or another internal position. The process then begins by identifying their sales team's needs. From there, it's important to determine how much the sales group wants to drive the experience as opposed to their potential customer. Finally, a custom experience is created that the team can deploy. One example is developing AR technology for trade shows. In some instances, the product being sold is too large or complicated to physically bring to the event, and the inner workings might be too difficult to dismantle. This is where the power of AR can truly shine.

Through the use of innovative augmented reality technology, VISION was able to help Emerson, a valve manufacturing company, create a memorable and immersive exhibit experience that stood out amongst the many other vendors on the expo floor competing for the attention of Valve World attendees.

Augmented reality proved to be a powerful tool in garnering interest at the trade show, driving traffic to their booth and granting the sales team more time to make connections and less time explaining, what can be, a complex product.

B2C businesses who want to incorporate AR technology have different challenges that need to be considered. That challenge is the numerous variables that are presented outside of a controlled environment. For instance, B2B AR will most likely consist of a handful of trained sales team members driving the experience on one type of device. For B2C, the consumer is the end user and many factors can play a role into the quality of their experience. Some dynamics the team has to consider is lighting, type of device, and current mobile software updates.

Additionally, it's important to recognize age as a factor. Some generations are more tech literate than others, so the challenge becomes creating an experience that is not only intriguing but has inherent usability. For this reason, testing is a vital part of our process due to the B2C margin for error being much smaller as patience levels thinner. If the production procedure is rushed the likelihood that an AR experience is glitchy rises. Having a production team with the ability to strike the balance of strategy, creativity and functionality is key to making a memorable consumer impression.

The future of AR

With the cancelation of live events, many companies are utilizing this time as an opportunity to prepare for the digital transformation. Brands are turning their marketing dollars towards the development of new technology such as AR and thinking long term about the approach they want to utilize moving forward.

By investing their budget into technology now, these organizations have the ability to advance and progress into what will be the future of marketing in the digital age.

COVID-19 has propelled AR technology and has forced companies to think outside of their typical efforts and adopt new ways of connecting. A few years ago, AR was a slow-moving technology, and now, the advancements are happening rapidly. Now is the time to invest and embrace new technology or else you run the risk of being left behind.

As AR continues to grow in popularity, we look forward to pushing the boundaries and creating immersive ideas that not only shape a user's experience with technology but encourage companies to utilize new ways of connecting.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

Your company shouldn't be upgrading to trendy technology without a strategic purpose, writes this local expert. Photo via Getty Images

How to best strategize your company's technology adoption, according to this Houston expert

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In any industry, the use of innovative technologies is often linked to an innovative company. With immersive technologies — including augmented reality, virtual reality, and interactive — heading into the mainstream thanks to COVID-19, brands are now able to reach their audiences in ways like never before. However, instead of incorporating these new technologies into their overall strategy, brands often fall into the trap of using the technology as their only strategy.

When brands are presented with a new and exciting way to interact with consumers in a world where it is hard to maintain their audiences' attention, it's easy to see why this happens. While these brands might get audiences' attention at the beginning when the technology is still novel, the campaign itself most likely won't make a lasting impression, especially as these technologies come more into the mainstream. Additionally, the new and shiny tactic may not be what best serves a brand's ultimate goal.

Starting with strategy

While the use of immersive technologies is growing, it is important to determine whether it is the right solution for the company.

To start, businesses should evaluate their target demographics and goals before investing in new technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality or animation. When taking all possible stakeholders into account, it will then be easier to shape the experience for maximum engagement and connection with target audiences. For example, in our work at VISION, we once worked with a client whose CEO had told their marketing team that they wanted Google Glass AR for a tradeshow.

The marketing team said they wanted to create an immersive experience and invite existing customers and potential new customers to a private experience using this innovative new technology. However, they did not have a plan for what the experience would be or why the customers were experiencing it. They just wanted to use word of mouth to talk about how cool it was.

Our team came in and listened to the event goals, gave our recommendations, and the client then realized they needed to determine who the customer was and what they wanted to say to the customer from a sales perspective.

That same client came back with a strategy behind the tradeshow experience and ultimately realized they actually did not want an AR experience, but that they wanted a complete immersive experience. From there, this client instead chose a 3D Interactive experience that they could deliver virtually online directly to their clients, and they didn't even use it for the tradeshow. It turned out to be the most successful sales tool they had ever produced.

What tech can do for strategy

Once brands have a broader idea for their strategy and marketing goals, they also need to understand what new immersive technologies are used to accomplish. Beyond creating "buzz," how does each technology actually drive the customer experience and end action desired?

Interactive media—Interactive media is a method of communication in which a program's outputs depend on the user's inputs, and the user's inputs, in turn, affect the program's outputs. Interactive media allows brands to connect with their audiences and making them active participants in the media they consume. Examples include digital graphics, interactive video or in-person touch screen activations.

There are a lot of different forms of interactive media, but at the heart, the goal of this tactic is to create something personalized to the user and establish a memorable connection.

Consider that people remember very little of what they read. They are likely to remember more if they view it in a video format – but they are most likely to remember something they have had a role in themselves. This makes it a particularly compelling technology if the ultimate goal is around education or awareness of a new topic.

Augmented reality – Augmented reality is the overlaying of digitally-created content on top of the real world. AR allows the user to interact with both the real world and digital elements or augmentations. AR can be offered to users via headsets like Microsoft's HoloLens, or through the video camera of a smartphone.

In both practical and experimental implementations, augmented reality can also replace or diminish the user's perception of reality. This altered perception could include simulation of an ocular condition for medical training purposes, or gradual obstruction of reality to introduce a game world. It is worth noting that there is a point when augmented reality and virtual reality likely merge, or overlap. See also, mixed reality.

Particularly in a post-COVID world, AR's applications can meet goals such as facilitating a try-on experience that can lead to direct sales or telling a brand story without the need for an in-person activation or event. We're also seeing AR being used to replace the exhibitor experiences at would-be in-person events, where AR allows the demonstration to come to the user. Now with social distancing mandates restricting in-person presentations, AR is proving even more valuable than ever before as more people begin to see the practical values beyond entertainment.

Virtual reality A high level of VR immersion is achieved by engaging your two most prominent senses, vision and hearing, by using a VR headset and headphones. The VR headset wraps the virtual world or experience nearly to the edge of your natural vision field of view. When you look around, you experience the environment the same as you do when you look around in real life. Headphones amplify the experience by blocking the noise around you, while allowing you to hear the sounds within the VR experience. When you move your head, the sounds within the VR environment move around you like they would in real life. The user becomes immersed within the virtual environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.

Virtual Reality has some great applications for training, particularly in healthcare fields or for active shooter preparation. In marketing, companies are implementing VR to enable the consumer to interact with products without having it in their hands — this is particularly applicable for selling luxury properties or furniture that consumers like to touch and feel prior to purchase.

The caveat with virtual reality is consumers cannot typically access this reality without VR goggles, and it is not conducive for a shareable experience that the audience can relive. So, particularly with this tactic, it's crucial to make sure that the "wow-factor" isn't the only goal.

As with anything, knowing what you want to achieve paves the way to get there. Each campaign should start off with establishing the goals. Once companies know what success looks like, they can then utilize creative and effective audience engagement strategies to reach these goals with presentation technology that helps get there.

Every single project is unique and custom. It's impossible to say that one tactic is right for a specific goal. There are ways to think about technology when it comes to those tactics. While a product launch may be great for AR, a real environment visualization is great for VR, or that a multi-user experience is a great way to utilize a permanent interactive display. But the truth is that if you have great strategy and you engage with a great content provider, who truly knows how to develop any type of content, they will be able to guide you in the execution of that tactic and the right technology to support your needs.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

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A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.