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DU Alumna Helps Bring Star Wars to Life

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Jon Stone

Media Relations Manager

Jon Stone

Justin Beach

Boulder-based company creates real-life Star Wars droids


It’s not an easy undertaking, bringing the androids from the Star Wars movies to life. However, for DU alumna Darby Vernon, it’s difficult for her to imagine doing anything else. It’s her job to make sure the droids your kids want this holiday season — or anytime during the year — are the ones produced by Sphero.

“When I graduated, I wasn’t really thinking about Star Wars. I was thinking, ‘Sphero is a local company and I would like to work for them.’ They just so happened to have the Star Wars deal,” Vernon says.

Sphero produces four different Star Wars droids (left to right): R2-Q5, BB-9E, BB-8 and R2-D2.
Sphero produces four different Star Wars droids (left to right): R2-Q5, BB-9E, BB-8 and R2-D2.

The 2015 computer science graduate landed the job with the Boulder-based company after interning there during her senior year. Little did she know that her work would help create one of the hottest gift items of the past few holiday seasons.

Founded in 2010, Sphero set out to transform the idea of “connected play” — fusing robotics and digital technology to create a hands-on entertainment experience. Its first product was an app-enabled robotic ball that is controlled by smartphone. In 2015, Sphero entered into a partnership with Disney to create toy versions of Star Wars’ most popular droids — R2-D2 and BB-8.

Today, the droids mimic exactly what you see in the movies. While you control the movements of the droid through an app on your phone, the sounds and gestures are exactly what you see on the big screen. The app is easily updatable to add features as new movies are released.

“We want to make sure every detail is right on point,” Vernon says. “We really pride ourselves on being one of the leaders in that type of play, where you can update your toys and put new features in.”

Vernon works as a game designer with Sphero. While the engineers create the droids and make sure everything operates properly, the game designers are responsible for making sure the droids actions and sounds imitate the movies. With the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Vernon and her co-workers created a new feature called “watch with me.” When you play the movie on your television or computer, BB-8 will listen to it through your phone and react to what’s happening on the screen.

Recently, Vernon was back on campus speaking to students during a Dine & Dialogue event hosted by the Office of Alumni Relations. The event is an opportunity for current students to hear from alums about their experiences.

“I loved it when people came to me as a student to talk about their experiences,” Vernon says. “When you are a senior and graduation is really close, it’s a very uncertain time. To have someone there to say, ‘I have been through the same thing, and this is how I did it,’ it’s very reassuring.”

Her message to students is to make sure the work they do outside the classroom is as important as what they are doing inside.

“In school, you really focus on your grades, but it’s the side projects that show what you love to do,” Vernon says. “Make sure that you have time for yourself to do something that you love, then when you go into a job interview it shows off a lot more than what you did in school.”

On Sunday, Dec. 17, the University of Denver is hosting three sold out private screenings of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" in Denver. Darby Vernon will do a live demonstration with the Sphero droids and answer questions from the 560 DU alumni and community members in attendance. All proceeds from this event will benefit the University's Robots and Autism Fund and DU's very own droids, including Ryan and Zeno.