Fulfilling the brainchild of Ben Davis, chairman of Illuminate the Arts (ITA) and the vision of acclaimed artist Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights, a new LED lighting system that was developed by Philips Color Kinetics, has transformed San Francisco’s Bay Bridge into a one-of-a-kind lighted sculpture for the next two years. Installed with the support of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the bridge is expected to be viewed by over 50 million people and bring nearly $100 million in revenue to the local San Francisco economy. The new LED lighting system uses 85 percent less energy than traditional lighting technologies, energy that will be offset by dedicated solar panels set up in Davis, CA by CleanPath.

Villareal, creator of The Bay Lights, is a pioneer in the use of LED lights and computer driven imagery. For the Bay Lights project he used Philips Color Kinetics eW Flex SLX product in 4200 Kelvin correlated color temperature. eW Flex SLX is a versatile strand of individually controllable white light LED nodes. The durable, flexible form factor allows dynamic points of white light to be installed across nearly any interior or exterior surface, which made it an ideal choice for The Bay Lights project. Philips Color Kinetics worked with Villareal to create custom spacing between the nodes to accommodate his design. In the end, almost 4.5 miles of product was installed on the bridge, roughly equal to the total length of the Bay Bridge, counting both spans. The lighting will be viewable from San Francisco and points north, but not by drivers crossing the bridge.

“Using Philips LED technology really gives me the creative flexibility I need to bring this bridge to life and fulfill my vision,” says Leo Villareal. “This isn’t about just lighting another bridge with white or colored light. The Bay Lights emphasizes the use of ‘intelligent’ lighting, fully utilizing individual control and the ability to create 255 levels of brightness per node. The custom software I have created allows for the creation of ever changing patterns site-specifically created for this location with the goal of producing a work of art.”

Turning the bridge into a monumental light sculpture is a unique application of LED lighting technology that sets the Bay Bridge apart. Villareal networked 25,000 of these LED nodes to create complex algorithms and patterns across the bridge’s western span. These patterns dynamically recombine themselves over the two-year duration of the installation, transforming the bridge into a living piece of art which organizers believe to be the world’s largest LED light sculpture.

As might be expected with a project of this magnitude, not all has gone smoothly. After a couple of months people began to notice problems with the artwork. Some of the 25,000 LED lights were stuck in the on or off position. At first it was barely noticeable, but by mid-May the problem had worsened, prompting concerted action on the part of The Bay Lights technical team. The team’s goal was straightforward – quickly figure out what the problem was and find a way to fix it — but troubleshooting such a large and complex project wasn’t easy. Along with a thorough analysis of 1.8 miles of hardware and software, the team also had to factor in the unique and harsh conditions of the San Francisco Bay environment: high winds, rain, fog, salty air and non-stop bridge vibrations from a quarter-million vehicles per day. An energetic and sustained collaboration ensued.

The team conclusively identified the problem – extreme environmental conditions were causing some of the 25,000 LED nodes to become faulty. The nodes are the product of Philips Color Kinetics, valued member of The Bay Lights technical team from the very beginning. The company engaged fully in troubleshooting the problem, has taken full responsibility, and has committed to correcting the problem as quickly as possible.

The team’s solution has two phases. In recognition of The Bay Lights importance to the region’s economic and cultural vitality, for the near-term temporary repairs by the technical team and careful reprogramming of algorithms by Leo Villareal will have the artwork continuing to shine during The America’s Cup and into the busy summer months in Bay Area. Over the summer a long-term solution will be developed. The unequivocal goal is to have The Bay Lights restored to full and robust technical strength this fall.

The privately funded project cost a total of $8 million. Organizers of The Bay Lights have provided all the financial support for the project through private funding, not tax payers. The first $100,000 to get the ball rolling was donated by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, who also donated the final $1.5 million needed to close out the project. Over the course of the year, it will cost approximately $11,000 in energy to light the piece, which translates into $30 per day or $4.25 per hour.

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Lighting Technology Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2013 issue of Lighting Technology Magazine.

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