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?

guest column

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

guest column

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

guest column

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-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Expert: Building Hispanic wealth means investing in Houston

Guest column

Every year at this time ― Hispanic Heritage Month ― we collectively celebrate the economic, cultural, and social contributions of the Hispanic-Latino community to our nation. We honor the work of past generations which have allowed children and future generations to benefit from more opportunities.

As diverse a community as is the world, we strive to build a future where there are no barriers for success, and at Bank of America, we do our part to make an impact by helping build Hispanic-Latino wealth in Houston.

The numbers are clear: The 2020 Census revealed that the Hispanic-Latino population in the United States rose to 62.1 million, making up 18.7 percent of the total U.S. population and accounting for slightly more than half (51.1 percent) of the population growth between 2010 and 2020. Hispanic-Latinos now open more small businesses than any other group in the country and are also the fastest-growing demographic of small business owners across the nation. It is not surprising that Hispanic-Latino economic power continues to rise year after year. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the number of Houston Hispanic businesses have increased 85 percent since 2013.

Investing in business

Investing in Hispanic-Latino wealth means supporting entrepreneurs so they are set up for success. Early-stage funding is critical for the growth of a new business, especially when Hispanic-Latino entrepreneurs are still faced with gaps in financial literacy and business education, funding, and networking opportunities.

According to data from Crunchbase, Latino-founded startups accounted for only 2.1 percent of venture investments in the U.S. last year. This is unjustifiable.

As part of our commitment to advancing racial equality and economic opportunity, we have dedicated $350 million in minority- and women-led companies through capital investment by mission-focused venture funds. Of the funds we have in our portfolio, one in every four are led by Hispanic-Latino managers, providing capital that will help entrepreneurs and small business owners grow their businesses, create jobs, and improve financial stability.

An important element to creating opportunities for Hispanic-Latinos to build wealth, whether as a business owner or an employee, is ensuring that young people recognize higher education as a pathway to achieve success. That means partnering with colleges and universities and investing in job creation, skills-building, and support services for students to do so. Locally, we do this with EMERGE Fellowship and with the University of Houston College of Medicine. When we invest in students, we are investing in future professionals and business leaders who will build Hispanic-Latino wealth and contribute to Houston’s economy and culture. This is something we can celebrate together for years to come.

Investing in sustainable homeownership

Sustainable homeownership provides a lasting investment for future generations and cycles capital into the community. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) recently released data showing an increase in Latino homeownership, from 47.5 percent in 2019 to 48.4 percent in 2021, the highest level since the mid-2000s. Through the Community Homeownership Commitment, which provides low down payment loans and closing cost grants, families can take their savings and turn them into lasting legacies. It is a pillar for families to build wealth.

Here in Houston, we also support organizations that assist with homeownership, like Tejano Center, Avenue CDC, and Houston Habitat for Humanity. Building Hispanic-Latino home equity increases the amount of capital families can use now or in the future helping build our Houston economy.

During the past decade, the rate of Hispanic-Latino economic development has far outpaced rates among non-Hispanics. Supporting and honoring our Hispanic-Latino clients is not just a month-long initiative, it is a long-term, generational investment in America and we are proud to be investing in a stronger economy for Houston now and for years to come.

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Rick Jaramillo is the market executive for Bank of America Houston.