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Light it up: Epic LED show to wrap SF Bay Bridge in swirls and stars

After years of planning and fundraising, artist Leo Villareal's 1.8-mile-long Bay Lights Project will be officially turned on Tuesday night. Viewing the bridge will never be the same.

Artist Leo Villareal's Bay Lights Project, which features 25,000 LEDs, and which is the world's-largest LED art project, officially turns on Tuesday night. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

With the flip of a switch Tuesday night, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, already known as one of the world's most amazing bridges, will undergo an epic transformation.

Starting tomorrow evening, anyone looking at the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge at night will be wowed by the ever-changing swirls, bursts, star fields, and other patterns of the Bay Lights Project, the world's largest LED art installation.

Created by artist Leo Villareal, the project features 25,000 1-inch LEDs strung for 1.8 miles along the bridge's cables that together make up the pixels on what might well be the world's-largest electronic canvas.

The privately-funded project, which took two years to manifest, cost about $8 million (of which $2 million must still be raised), and required the the approval of several public agencies. Underlying it is tons and tons of patterns, with algorithmic rules governing them and ensuring that nobody ever sees the same pattern twice. The project is based on a deep library of pre-programmed imagery that will be continuously blended together and layered on top of each other in random ways, and for random amounts of time, all automatically by a computer mounted on the bridge itself.

The concept is for the system to generate specific patterns that can do any number of things -- explode, blossom, rise, fall, dissolve, and so on -- and blend them into an essentially infinite set of possibilities.

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Although the project has been running on and off during tests for the last few weeks, its official launch is Tuesday night. And finally, after two years, the project's many fans will be able to delight themselves each and every night -- for at least the project's minimum two-year run -- by standing anywhere that the north side of the bridge can be seen and watching Villareal's artistry at work, and on a scale that has never before been attempted anywhere on Earth.

Those unable to witness the launch in person can watch it online starting at 8:30 p.m. PT Tuesday.