Alumni having a ball with Star Wars work Carroll, Earwood help bring Sphero’s BB-8 to life

By Wes McKinzie

The force is strong with these two Oklahoma Christian University alumni.

Jon Carroll and Corey Earwood played big roles in the development of Sphero’s BB-8 app-enabled droid, the hottest toy from the season’s hottest movie, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

As Sphero’s director of product, Jon works with the company’s software engineering, hardware engineering, and marketing teams to make sure everything comes together to make BB-8 the best product it can be.

He traveled to Lucasfilm in San Francisco and spent a chunk of this past summer in China supporting BB-8’s development.

“It was a really happy coincidence that we had an expertise in making robot balls and the new Star Wars movie had a ball-shaped droid as one of the main characters.” Jon Carroll

Corey is Sphero’s director of core technology. He worked on BB-8’s software development team, making it easier for his fellow techies to write apps for the droid. He also worked on the video functionality that allows people to record their own holographic messages that BB-8 plays virtually in the app.

“The first time we saw BB-8 fully decorated with the head on, it was just this moment of ‘We’re making a Star Wars product,’” Corey said. “We just couldn’t believe it. It was incredible.”

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Sphero launched just four years ago through a startup accelerator called Techstars. Sphero quickly became the leader in the app-enabled robot market, but a 2014 Disney Techstars event really sent the company into hyperspace.

“Bob Iger (Disney’s CEO) was one of our mentors in that program,” Jon said. “It was a really happy coincidence that we had an expertise in making robot balls and the new Star Wars movie had a ball-shaped droid as one of the main characters.”

Sphero had just nine months to develop and deliver BB-8 after Disney gave the go-ahead, meaning its “Jedi masters” had to quickly make the jump to lightspeed.

To assist in the development process, Disney granted access to a limited number of images from the set. Sphero’s pros viewed them in a private room dedicated to the toy’s production.

“We spent a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of long hours, and a lot of weekends working to make this a reality given the really tight timeline we were under,” Jon said. “A lot of love and blood, sweat, and tears went into this product.”

Just a few years before they worked on BB-8, Jon and Corey worked together as students in OC’s Office of Information Technology.

Corey graduated with a Bible degree in 2007, then earned his MBA degree from OC the following year. Jon, whose mother Lisa is the managing director of OC’s Honors Program, graduated with a degree in information systems in 2008.

“The small class sizes were great. Getting to know everybody on campus was awesome. You definitely weren’t siloed to your department so I was able to work with the engineers and the computer science people,” Corey said. “The MBA program was amazing. I’m using some of the management skills I learned in my job now.”

After graduating from OC, the friends joined forces to become successful app developers. Building on the hands-on experience he had with his OC professors, Jon excelled as a master’s student at the University of Colorado and became the ninth employee hired by Sphero when it launched in 2011. Corey came on board in 2014.

“Sphero is a really fantastic place to work, knowing that everyone around you knows more than you do about something, but also has that same respect for you,” Jon said. “We work really hard. You’ll almost always see people here until 8 or 9 every night doing their job. But you’ll also walk by seeing people riding skateboards or playing video games.”

All the Star Wars paraphernalia around the office (including BB-8 boxes autographed by Episode VII director J.J. Abrams and Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew) is just one sign that Sphero will keep the ball rolling.

After starting with just a couple of prototypes in 2011, the company now sells tens of thousands of units per year. It’s heady stuff for two OC alumni who have, as Jon says, “achieved the pinnacle of nerddom.”

“Find a hobby. Find something you love doing,” Corey said. “You never know when that hobby is going to turn into a career. That’s what happened to me.”


Summer 2016

View more stories from the Summer 2016 issue of Vision magazine.