Bay Lights test sequence viewed from Rincon Park

Bay Lights test sequence viewed from Rincon Park

Photo by Lucas Saugen

Lunar glow, LEDs compete to illuminate the bridge

Lunar glow, LEDs compete to illuminate the bridge

Photo by Lucas Saugen

Leo Villareal tunes the lights from his laptop

Leo Villareal tunes the lights from his laptop

Photo by Lucas Saugen

A bystander captures the test on video

A bystander captures the test on video

Photo by Lucas Saugen

Patterns snake upward along suspension cables

Patterns snake upward along suspension cables

Photo by Lucas Saugen

Few artists have ever had a bigger canvas at their disposal than Leo Villareal.

The New York-based “light sculptor” is famous for designing huge, computer-driven LED art installations that cover entire walls of museums and other facilities around the country. But the Bay Lights, an array of individually programmed LEDs stretching across the entire Western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, makes Villareal’s other projects look tiny.

Over the last few months, workers from the Cailfornia Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which owns the bridge, have finished attaching 25,000 LEDs to the suspension cables on the bridge’s north-facing side. Now Villareal is testing the lights in preparation for an official “Grand Lighting” ceremony on March 5.

The photos above, and the video below, were captured on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 24, as Villareal—working from a laptop wirelessly connected to control units on the bridge—debugged and refined the algorithms he’s written to modulate the individual lights.

Like pixels on a screen, the LEDs can create endless patterns, all at Villareal’s command. In theory, anyway. Only once the lights were installed could Villareal begin to give his software a real, and very public, test.

“You can’t just build this in your garage, test it, and roll it out,” says Ben Davis, director of the private non-profit organization that’s raising money to support Villareal’s project. “This has never been done before in history—literally debugging software 500 feet in the air, in front of a million people.”

Installation, testing, and debugging is about 85 percent complete, Davis says. “There’s now a two-fold path of ironing out the remaining technical issues, and letting Leo work on the process of algorithm cultivation,” he says. To figure out which patterns are most interesting or arresting, he says, Villareal needed to experiment on the bridge itself.

Here’s footage from the Jan. 24 tests; article continues below video.

Davis is also the founder of Words Pictures Ideas, a San Francisco-based branding and public relations firm. As I explained in a May 2012 feature, Davis hatched the idea for the Bay Lights Project back in 2010. He was eventually able to convince Villareal to execute it, and persuaded a group of Bay Area technology leaders to provide early financing for the project.

Donations now total $5.8 million, with $3 million coming from a single anonymous donor. Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg donated $250,000, as did Gmail creator Paul Buchheit. Angel investor Ron Conway is part of a group of eight “Radiant Patrons” who each provided between $26,000 and $50,000. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer belongs to a larger group of “Brilliant Patrons” who ponied up $10,000 to $25,000 each.

Davis says another $2.2 million is needed to cover the full cost of the project through 2015. “Money is coming in, and we’re optimistic that it will continue to come in, but we really need to expand the constellation of supporters,” he says.

The Bay Lights installation is intended to resonate with San Francisco residents and visitors in two ways, according to Davis. First, it’s simply a groundbreaking piece of public art. “Leo is a recognized, internationally renowned artist. He’s not just illuminating a bridge, but building a piece of art that has never been created before.”

But it’s also part civics lesson, Davis says. “This piece really reflects on the art and technology space that is the Bay Area right now. It reflects beautifully on us as a community that we could make this happen, from a technology perspective and a funding perspective. And it will be operating during one of the most vibrant times ever in Bay Area history, the time of the America’s Cup and the opening of the new Exploratorium on Pier 13 and the 150th anniversary of the Port of San Francisco, at the same time the new Bay Bridge will be opened.”

That’s a reference to the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a suspension bridge designed to replace the seismically unsafe truss bridge on the Oakland side of Yerba Buena Island.

Davis has a longstanding tie to that side of the bridge as well: working for Caltrans, his PR firm developed a public information site called BayBridgeinfo.org that offers extensive imagery and information about the project. However, the Sacramento Bee reported in December that Caltrans had canceled a $10 million contract with Davis’s PR firm to produce a documentary video and book about the eastern span’s construction.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.