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The Art and Tech Behind the Bay Lights Project

By Norman Chan

And how the $8 million art project almost crowdsourced materials with local 3D printer owners.

On Saturday, I was given the opportunity to spend some time with artist Leo Villareal, the light sculptor behind The Bay Lights Project. Villareal, who is based in New York, has been making trips to San Francisco with increasing frequency as his latest work ramps up to its debut. Beginning March 5th, the Bay Bridge will be lit up at night by 25,000 LED nodes, working in concert to display dazzling sequences of light animations that's the signature of Villareal's work.

The Bay Lights installation will be a fixture of the Bay Area skyline for the next two years, but Villareal and his collaborators have been working on this concept for a bit longer than that. And in these weeks leading up to March 5th, pedestrians and drivers strolling along San Francisco's Embarcadero area have able to catch a preview of The Bay Lights as Villareal debugs and polishes his animation algorithms. We joined Leo for one of these testing sessions to learn how the project was put together.

We'll be posting a video profile of Leo Villareal and The Bay Lights in the coming weeks, but I wanted to share with you some insights from our conversation with Leo about this piece and some interesting considerations for its installation.

  • Each light node on The Bay Lights is composed of five Philips LEDs, which Villareal has used in past projects and that finds to be reliable. The LEDs have 256-levels of brightness, which allows him to program the pulsing animations that flow up and down the suspension cables along the bridge.
  • The original plan for installation was to use rails that would stretch the length of each cable to attach the light nodes. This proved too costly, so the idea was hatched to strap the nodes directly to each cable using a custom brace and large zip-tie.
  • These braces were prototyped on MakerBots, and one idea was to crowd-source the production of 25,000 braces with MakerBot owners, adding a sense of contribution and community to the project. In the end, injection-molded plastic braces were used instead because they met cost and reliability demands.
  • Villareal uses all custom software to program his light sequences, and it was amazing to watch him play with that in real-time from a small laptop on a San Francisco Pier. The software lets him visualize the light display to some extent--the light sequences are actually encoded to a greyscale video file with pixels in the video mapped to individual light nodes. This looked especially cool.
  • One important consideration was not letting the lights distract drivers crossing the west span of the Bay Bridge. The lights are only on the north side of the bridge, and angled to face the part of the city where residents and tourists could see them best when walking along the Embarcadero. I drove across the bridge twice that evening, and could definitely see a little bit of the lights when heading toward the city (they're much more prominent in the rear-view mirror). It wasn't distracting, though.
  • Even though 25,000 sounds like a lot, it's actually a very small amount of lights to work with when you're talking about the 2 mile west span of the Bay Bridge. So don't expect the lights to show any kind of scrolling words or animated images.