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 Texas www.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.
Hey, big spenders of The Woodlands and Sugar Land. Photo courtesy of Holiday Shopping Card

Shoppers in these Houston suburbs are among biggest holiday spenders in U.S.

big spenders

It appears that delivery drivers (and Santa) will be hauling sleighs full of gifts to homes in The Woodlands and Sugar Land this holiday season.

A new study from personal finance website WalletHub ranks The Woodlands and Sugar Land sixth and seventh, respectively, in the country for cities with the biggest holiday budgets. WalletHub estimates that consumers in The Woodlands will ring up an average of $2,729 in holiday spending; Sugar Land residents will spend $2,728.

Other Greater Houston-area suburbs on the list include League City, No. 15 at $2,501, and Missouri City, No. 98 at $1,264.

Elsewhere in Texas, Flower Mound came in second for holiday spending; residents there will ring up an average of $2,973. Only Palo Alto, California, had a higher amount ($3,056) among the 570 U.S. cities included in the study, which was released November 17.

The five factors that WalletHub used to come up with budget estimates for each city are income, age, savings-to-expenses ratio, income-to-expenses ratio and debt-to-income ratio.

Flower Mound consistently ranks at the top of WalletHub's annual study on holiday spending. Last year, the Dallas suburb came in at No. 3 (budget: $2,937), and in 2018, it landed atop the list at No. 1 (budget: $2,761).

Aside from Flower Mound, five cities in Dallas-Fort Worth appear in WalletHub's top 100:

  • Richardson, No. 36, $2,002
  • Frisco, No. 53, $1,684
  • Plano, No. 59, $1,594
  • Carrollton, No. 71, $1,492
  • North Richland Hills, No. 95, $1,303

Two cities in the Austin area also make the top 100: Cedar Park at No. 73 ($1,472) and Austin at No. 99 ($1,259).

Austin's No. 99 ranking puts it in the top spot among Texas' five largest cities. It's followed by Fort Worth (No. 306, $718), San Antonio (No. 394, $600), Dallas (No. 399, $596), and Houston (No. 436, $565).

Harlingen is the most Scrooge-y Texas city: The estimated $385 holiday budget puts it at No. 560 nationwide.

Overall, Americans predict they'll spend an average of $805 on holiday gifts this year, down significantly from last year's estimate of $942, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Outlooks for U.S. holiday retail sales this year are muted due to the pandemic-produced recession. Consulting giant Deloitte forecasts a modest rise of 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with commercial real estate services provider CBRE guessing the figure will be less than 2 percent.

"The lower projected holiday growth this season is not surprising given the state of the economy. While high unemployment and economic anxiety will weigh on overall retail sales this holiday season, reduced spending on pandemic-sensitive services such as restaurants and travel may help bolster retail holiday sales somewhat," Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's U.S. economic forecaster, says in a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The Woodlands and Sugar Land go big for the holidays. Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images

These Houston suburbs top the list of biggest holiday spenders in U.S.

BIG SPENDERS

Santa Claus is coming to two Houston suburbs in a big way. A new study by personal finance website WalletHub estimates the typical holiday shopping budgets in The Woodlands and Sugar Land will be some of the highest among U.S. cities.

To come up with its ranking for holiday spending per person, WalletHub compared 570 U.S. cities across five metrics: income, age, debt-to-income ratio, monthly income-to-expense ratio, and monthly savings-to-expense ratio.

The Woodlands ranks seventh in the U.S. with a budget of $2,833; Sugar Land, with a budget of $2,386, comes in 13th.

In terms of income, the suburbs far exceed the median amount per household in Texas, meaning there's presumably more money in the bank to buy holiday gifts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for The Woodlands stood at $115,083 in 2017, and Sugar Land stood at $108,994. By comparison, the median household income in Texas was $57,051.

Four other Texas cities are in this year's top 30 for holiday spending:

  • No. 3 — Flower Mound ($2,937)
  • No. 6 — Frisco ($2,836)
  • No. 14 — Cedar Park ($2,263)
  • No. 17 — Allen ($2,212)

Not surprisingly, a couple of those cities bear some of the state's highest per-household burdens for credit card debt. According to personal finance website ValuePenguin, the average credit card debt in Flower Mound was $11,715 in 2017, compared with $6,948 statewide, while Allen was at $12,101.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Sugar Land and Pearland are experiencing a bit of a boom when it comes to population. Photo courtesy of Sugar Land Town Square

2 Houston-area suburbs named among the fastest-growing cities in America

ranking it

Two of the fastest-growing spots in the nation are right in Houston's backyard. Personal finance website WalletHub has crowned Sugar Land and Pearland among the 30 fastest-growing cities in the U.S.

WalletHub published its list of America's fastest-growing cities October 14. To come up with the list, the site compared 515 cities of varying sizes on 17 key measures of both growth and weakness over a seven-year period. Cities were judged in areas such as population growth, economic gains, and unemployment declines.

Sugar Land, No. 21 among all 515 cities, also claimed the No. 13 spot for midsize cities (100,000 to 300,000 residents) with the highest growth. Pearland ranked No. 27 overall and came in No. 17 among midsize cities.

Sugar Land also earned the No. 1 ranking in WalletHub's "sociodemographics" category, and, in the category for highest population growth, Sugar Land tied for No. 1 overall with Frisco and McKinney, plus three cities outside Texas.

The title of fastest-growing city in Texas goes to Frisco. The DFW suburb claimed the No. 5 spot overall and ranked No. 3 among midsize cities. Frisco also tied for No. 1 in the category of highest job growth (6.88 percent); McKinney shared that ranking.

Two other Texas cities made WalletHub's top 30: Round Rock, No. 10, and Austin, No. 15.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

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Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

guest column

Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.