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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Energy giant announces deal retail company to bring EV tech to Houston malls

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Two Houston-area malls will be getting bp's electric vehicle charging technology thanks to a new global collaboration.

The global energy company will be bringing its global EV charging business, bp pulse, to 75 shopping facilities across the country thanks to a partnership with Simon Malls. Two malls in town — The Galleria and Katy Mills Mall — soon see bp's EV charging Gigahubs. The company will install and operate the chargers at the two area sites.

The deal aims to deliver over 900 ultra-fast charging bays that will support most make and model of EVs with the first locations opening to the public in early 2026. Other Texas locations include Grapevine Mills in Grapevine, and Austin’s Barton Creek Square.

“We’re pleased to complete this deal with Simon and expand our ultra-fast charging network footprint in the U.S.,” Richard Bartlett, CEO of bp pulse, says in a news release. “The Simon portfolio aligns with bp pulse’s strategy to deploy ultra-fast charging across the West Coast, East Coast, Sun Belt and Great Lakes, and we are thrilled to team up with Simon so that EV drivers have a range of retail offerings at their impressive destinations.”

Last month, bp pulse opened a EV charging station at its North American headquarters in Houston. The company plans to continue deployment of additional charging points at high-demand spots like major metropolitan areas, bp-owned properties, and airports, according to bp.

“As a committed long term infrastructure player with a global network of EV charging solutions, bp pulse intends to continue to seek and build transformative industry collaborations in real estate required to scale our network and match the demand of current and future EV drivers,” Sujay Sharma, CEO bp pulse Americas, adds.

Houston space tech company reaches major milestone for engine technology

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A Houston company that's creating the next generation of space exploration technology is celebrating a new milestone of one of its technologies.

Intuitive Machines reports that its VR900 completed a full-duration hot-fire test, qualifying it for its IM-2 lunar mission. With the qualification, the company says its VR3500, an engine designed for larger cargo class landers, also advances in development.

The engine technology is designed, 3D-printed, and tested all at Intuitive Machines' Houston facility, which opened in the Houston Spaceport last year.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus says in a news release that the company's goal was to lead the way in scalable deep space engines as the industry heads toward lunar missions.

“This validated engine design meets current mission demand and paves the way for our VR3500 engine for cargo delivery such as lunar terrain vehicles, human spaceflight cargo resupply, and other infrastructure delivery," Altemus continues. "We believe we’re in a prime position to build on our successful development and apply that technology toward current contracts and future lunar requirements for infrastructure delivery.”

Earlier this year, Intuitive Machines was one of one of three companies selected for a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Another Houston company has seen success with its engine testing. In March, Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Houston is the most stressed out city in Texas, report finds

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Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but a new report by WalletHub shows Houston residents are far more stressed out than any other city in Texas.

Houston ranked No. 18 out of 182 of the largest U.S. cities based on work, financial, family-related, and health and safety stress, according to WalletHub's "Most & Least Stressed Cities in America (2024)" report. 39 relevant metrics were considered in the report, including each city's job security, the share of households behind on bills within the last 12 months, divorce rates, crime rates, among others.

Houston was ranked the most stressed out city in Texas, but it's still far less stressed than many other U.S. cities. Cleveland, Ohio took first place as the most stressed city in America, followed by Detroit, Michigan (No. 2), Baltimore, Maryland (No. 3), Memphis, Tennessee (No. 4), and Gulfport, Mississippi (No. 5).

Out of the four main categories, Houstonians are struggling the most with work-related stress, ranking No. 13 nationally. The report found Houston has the No. 1 highest traffic congestion rate out of all cities in the report. But at least Houston drivers are solidly average, as maintained by a separate Forbes study comparing the worst drivers in America.

Houston workers can rejoice that they live in a city with a generally high level of guaranteed employment, as the city ranked No. 151 in the job security comparison. The city ranked No. 16 nationwide in the metric for the highest average weekly hours worked.

Houston fared best in the financial stress category, coming in at No. 72 nationally, showing that Houstonians aren't as worried about pinching pennies when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life. The city ranked No. 39 in the comparison of highest poverty rates.

Here's how WalletHub quantified Houston's stress levels:

  • No. 17 – Health and safety stress rank (overall)
  • No. 36 – Family stress rank (overall)
  • No. 63 – Unemployment rates
  • No. 81 – Percentage of adults in fair/poor health
  • No. 95 – Divorce rate
  • No. 96 – Percentage of adults with inadequate sleep

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe said in the report that living in particularly arduous cities can play a big role in how stressed a person is, especially when considering uncontrollable circumstances like family problems or work-related issues.

"Cities with high crime rates, weak economies, less effective public health and congested transportation systems naturally lead to elevated stress levels for residents," Happe said.

Happe advised that residents considering a move to a place like Houston should consider how the city's quality of life will impact their mental health, not just their financial wellbeing.

Other Texas cities that ranked among the top 100 most stressed cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 20 – San Antonio
  • No. 38 – Laredo
  • No. 41 – Dallas
  • No. 47 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 61 – El Paso
  • No. 68 – Fort Worth
  • No. 71 – Brownsville
  • No. 75 – Arlington
  • No. 78 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 88 – Garland
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.