Jackson Hole is probably the most livestreamed community in Wyoming.
With about 66 cameras capturing real-time video in the valley and another 30 or so in neighboring communities, Jackson is the undisputed webcam capital of the Cowboy State.
Virtual voyeurism opportunities abound. With a reliable WiFi connection, anyone anywhere in the world can keep tabs on the comings and goings in downtown Jackson, drop in on the rodeo, watch the town square shootout or check the lift lines at the ski resort.
All at the click of a mouse or tap of a screen.
Webcam service also comes in handy for the practical user. What’s the traffic situation downtown? How are the roads up north after that storm? And wait, is that a bull moose sleeping in front of the library?
Bob Strobel is the man behind the cameras. He’s personally responsible for the movement to bring Jackson Hole to the world at 30 frames per second.
From humble beginnings to today’s multiplex monitor empire at SeeJH, the 47-year-old has always been ahead of the curve.
“We were clued in 22 years ago that this was going to come. And here we are now,” Strobel said.
“When we launched that first cam on the town square in 2001, it was a jpeg refreshing every 30 seconds, a 480 [pixel] picture,” Strobel said. “At the time, that page on Jackson Hole Net [Strobel’s first tourism company] became the most popular page by far, by a multitude of a hundred.
“That’s when I knew. It was a segue for what we have now — live video,and a chance for people to look in on as real a Jackson as they can.”
Other cameras at Spring Creek Resort, Teton Village, Hatchet Resort (on Togwotee Pass) and East Gros Ventre Butte became the centerpieces of Strobel’s tourism website. And all they were doing was transmitting two still photos every minute.
Even so, cyber users were enthralled with the notion they could “stay in touch” with one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What held Strobel back in the aughts was not the vision, it was the tech. He had to wait for science to catch up with his vision.
“The technology of the cameras was not very good at all and the bandwidth requirements back then was a major barrier,” Strobel said. “There was live video then, but unless you were the military or POTUS you were not going to get anything streamed in the dial-up era.”
By around 2013, things got better. Compression algorithms were developed that allowed still frames to be shrunk down to only the essentials, transmitted and reassembled at the user’s end.
“Imagine it like this: By 2021, we were able to send a golf ball through a garden hose. But only a decade earlier we were shrinking a golf ball, sending it through the garden hose, and then rebuilding the golf ball using encoders and decoders,” Strobel explained.
Now, it’s high-resolution 1080p up to 4K, all streamed smoothly from 30 below zero temperatures on a mountain summit at 11,000 feet to the comfort of an iPad poolside in Miami. No problem.
Back to 2014. Strobel was in the midst of transitioning to video streaming with his half-dozen webcams in Jackson. Web traffic began improving predictably with the upgrades.
Then comes July 2016. He affixes a camera attached to a pizza joint pointed at the town square in Jackson. Sure, it’s Jackson’s busiest “intersection,” but this is still Wyoming. Literal minutes can elapse where if the wind isn’t making tree branches sway or the snow isn’t falling, it might not be immediately evident the picture is actually live video until a vehicle or pedestrian happens by.
Why, then, does all internet hell break loose and this Jackson webcam suddenly go viral overnight?
All that summer, viewers were hitting the website like Amazon taking Christmas orders on Cyber Monday. Thousands are logged in for hours at a time and chatting it up with the most mundane comments.
“I'm here from Sweden. Where you watching from?”
Some called it the short-lived craze of slow burn TV. Like television’s “Seinfeld” sitcom, the town square webcam was a plotless, and practically actionless, episode of Americana. It was one step up from watching a yule log burn on screen for apartment dwellers without a fireplace.
“People love watching life unfold organically,” Strobel hypothesized.
Livability’s Jessica Walker Boehm summed up the cyber craze aptly in a November 2016 article: “People are tuning in all over the world to watch Jackson residents and tourists cross the street and drive through the intersection of Broadway and Cache streets.
“So far, notable sightings have included a bride-to-be twerking, a horse pooping in the street and dozens of red vehicles which viewers love to point out (especially when they see a red truck). Compelling content, no?”
In retrospect, it does not sound as compelling as it was then. But after Google tweaked its algorithms to favor video content, YouTube recommended the feed on its front page and Reddit highlighted the site, well, off it went, viral as can be.
Everyone was watching nothing happen.
Take it from 27-year-old Meaghan Hill (@mimi1596) who tweeted Sept. 8, 2016, from Perth Australia: “Why can't I stop watching this livestream!?”
The closest she’s been to Wyoming is opening her laptop.
“I thought it was fun. I thought it was cute. That whole craze with cops doing pushups and dabbing, people making memes,” Strobel said. “But new levels, new devils, right? It wasn’t what I had intended — a crazy viral thing.
“When it simmered down and fell back to earth, I was grateful for what it did, not what it was. The new reality of elevated exposure had its positives.”
Monetizing Motion Pictures
The commercialization of Jackson as a tourist destination is not something Strobel has ever had in mind. It gets enough of that on its own, he said. In fact, it’s difficult to see how Strobel monetizes his webcams at all. He allows anyone to embed them on their websites and is very open with sharing content.
“I have to strike this balance between providing a community service and making a living. I want to share these views. It helps travelers and locals. But another part of me knows it’s not free, what I do,” Strobel said. “But I don’t want to highly commercialize this area that is already highly commercialized for my personal gain.”
Revenue is nice. A ton of maintenance is involved in keeping the cameras operational.
“It’s like herding cats. Someone digs up a Silver Star fiber cable, something comes undone,” Strobel said. “Just last week I drove to Island Park where we have a camera on the Henry’s Fork just to discover the camera got unplugged. All I had to do was plug it back in.”
Strobel said the webcams are used often by locals for practical purposes. Plow drivers check on road conditions, river runners keep up to date with weather on the Snake at Moose.
Tourists check the feed to plan their trips or get excited about the things they might do when they arrive. Second homeowners and similar expats use the webcams as a way to stay connected to the area.
Smile, You’re On Camera
Cameras as surveillance are fast becoming a way of life in the U.S. From Ring doorbells to smart streetlights, so much of our everyday lives play out onscreen somewhere.
Some of the most heavily watched cities in America include Chicago with some 32,000 CCTV cameras in the metro area and Atlanta, which is the most surveilled city in the country with nearly 50 cameras per 1,000 people.
Even nearby Denver ranks as the third most-watched city in the U.S. with 12,273 cameras for 727,211 people (17 cameras per 1,000 people).
Moving forward, the issue of balancing safety and security with the right to expect some modicum of privacy will be hotly debated, no doubt. For Strobel, his webcam service was not intended to be used for the purposes of law enforcement, but he has been asked to provide footage of potential crime scenes.
“I have been asked and I provide when I can, but it’s not a big priority for me,” he said. “Most of the time, the time has passed where we are able to access any footage. We keep no database or anything like that.”
Still, SeeJH cameras have caught some interesting things over the years. From tracking the advance of wildfires to watching snow pile up at the summit of the Teton Lift at Jackson Hole Mountain resort, Strobel’s webcams have come in handy.
The craziest things picked up on Jackson webcams have included a runaway stagecoach and famed grizzly bear 399 strolling through downtown Jackson with her four cubs (captured by Jackson Police Department surveillance cameras).
Next Gen Tech
Strobel is never one to be content. While he said there are probably enough cameras up and running in Jackson now, the rest of the state could be better tapped.
“There are a lot of cool shots to get in Wyoming,” he said.
The Jackson businessman also thinks the near future will include tremendous advances in artificial intelligence regarding video streams.
“I think there will be something down the road regarding AI. I'm not sure what that’s going to be. We are still in the early stages of this,” Strobel said. “But there is definitely going to be some machine learning on video surveillance type feeds. I know people in the Department of Defense already thinking about these kinds of things.”
It’s the “tree falls in the forest” conundrum. If no one is there watching a screen capture 24/7, what might be missed? If machines could monitor webcams for humans and be taught what is important to watch for, well, who knows what incredible things might play out on screen that would have been lost.
As for Strobel, he said he is working on “something big” that will launch in test phase later this month. He wouldn’t say more.
“I don’t want to spoil it,” he teased. “Maybe some things need to be left unsaid.”
Webcams In The Jackson Hole region
10 Teton Village
11 Grand Teton NP
5 Snow King
3 Elk Refuge
9 Togwotee Pass
18 Star Valley
4 Swan Valley Idaho
7 Teton Valley Idaho