Enabling and supporting webcam use on remote desktops

Remote desktops, especially in the case of remote workers, need adequate peripheral support to perform critical functions.

Webcams enable remote collaboration via video conferencing, and they are now a common way for users to collaborate from different locations. However, these peripherals can cause problems when Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) configurations are not perfectly in place.

IT teams need to make sure they have the right conditions for remote desktops to work with webcam access and know how to troubleshoot any issues.

Make sure the webcam works on the local device

The first and most critical step is to ensure that the webcam works properly on the local device. If the webcam is built-in, does the device recognize it? If the webcam is a plug-in peripheral, does it have the correct configurations and is it fully operational? If it is possible for multiple webcams to be in use, make sure the desired webcam is chosen.

Most laptops have a mediocre internal webcam, so organizations may choose to install a higher quality webcam. While the newer webcam is generally becoming the default, users may need to specifically designate it as such.

The first and most critical step is to ensure that the webcam works properly on the local device.

If the webcam doesn’t work at all on the local device, the problem may be connectivity or driver related. While most webcams are plug-and-play devices, meaning they automatically configure themselves once connected, some devices may require the installation of certain drivers or third-party software.

The connection type of the device can also affect the success. Webcams usually connect via USB, but can also connect via bluetooth, and problems with the USB input or Bluetooth can cause webcam errors. In addition, several connection types can be disabled within an RDP user session, preventing the remote desktop from detecting the webcam.

Manage the RDP configurations

It is optimal that the webcam is fully set up and configured before starting an RDP session. While the RDP connection should recognize a peripheral device after an RDP session is initiated, it may not do so if plug and play is not enabled or if a problem occurs. It is better to avoid this possibility altogether.

There are many settings that can affect webcams within an RDP session. If any of the settings described below do not allow the webcam connection, the peripheral will not work properly. These settings include the following:

  • user device RDP connection setting;
  • Group Policy Objects (group policy objects), such as RDP workstation, server, and domain settings; and
  • possible additional settings from Citrix, VMware, Parallels or another vendor.
Figure 1. The extended remote desktop settings with options for video capture devices, including webcams

On the user device, IT administrators or even users can configure RDP connection settings within the Local Resources tab. There are several settings that can directly affect webcams. One of the most common settings to look at is under Local Resources > Local Devices and Resources > More… (Figure 1). Once on the right screen, the Video recording devices checkbox just needs to be enabled. This setting is not enabled by default, so organizations must manage this setting directly or inform users how to make this change.

In addition, IT may need to turn on Other supported Plug and Play devicesincluding the Devices that I connect later check box. In addition, it may be necessary to open the Configure Remote Audio Settings and make adjustments that affect the webcam’s microphone function.

The most common reason for a webcam not working as expected is due to GPO settings. Please note that there are two places where GPO settings can modify the RDP session: the local remote desktop workstation and server and domain-wide settings. Disabling webcam, video, or other connection settings in any of these locations will interfere with webcam functionality.

Within Computer Configuration > Policies > Administration, Templates > Windows Components > Remote Desktop Services > Remote Desktop and Session Host > Device and Resource Redirection, there are several settings that can also cause problems for webcam use. These settings are available both as Active Directory (AD) GPOs that span an organizational unit within the domain, and as local GPOs that affect only that specific remote desktop workstation or server.

The list of GPOs with arrows pointing to the group most relevant to remote desktop webcam sessions
Figure 2. The various group policy objects related to webcam settings on remote desktops

For example Do not allow video recording redirection enabled on the remote desktop workstation or server, but not configured within a domain GPO, the user would not be able to connect a webcam within that remote desktop resource (Figure 2). However, that user could connect to a webcam within other remote desktop resources that do not have this GPO configured locally.

Administrators should be extremely careful when making one-time changes to a remote desktop workstation or server, such as changing settings while troubleshooting a problem. If IT admins create one temporary changes to local Group Policy objects, they must immediately reverse it. In the event that this is not possible, the IT department should go so far as to deploy a newly provisioned remote desktop workstation and then restore the compromised workstation to basic state with all correct local and domain GPOs applied.

Other settings related to video playback, audio, and plug-and-play device redirection can prevent users from using webcams properly. Unfortunately, just one of these misapplied settings can wreak havoc for administrators, so IT needs to carefully check all webcam-related settings.

If someone has changed the video playback settings, the user may notice a problem with the webcam because playback is not as expected during the RDP session. For example, if a user records a video but cannot view the playback or the audio does not function properly, the user may not realize that the webcam was indeed functioning properly. In this example, only playback would fail.

If a third-party virtualization product is in use, IT can manage and configure additional settings. These settings can prevent or change not only webcam functionality, but also audio and connectivity ports, such as USB and Bluetooth.

Troubleshooting a webcam on a remote desktop

When a user submits a ticket saying something like “my webcam isn’t working,” IT has to take several steps to respond, especially if that user needs a webcam for business-critical tasks, such as video conferencing. If this issue is only reported by one user, it is likely related to the physical webcam or its configuration. In this case, it is best to start with the user device and ensure functionality as a first step through a series of questions and a troubleshooting session. Some of the questions that the user should ask are the following:

  • Is the webcam working properly on the local device? Can the user successfully access the webcam within a local Zoom session?
  • Is this a new webcam, and if not, did the webcam work as intended? When was the last time the user was able to use the webcam locally and within an RDP session?
  • What appears within the local RDP connection settings? Has anyone reviewed these settings recently?
  • Can the user test this webcam on another user device to rule out a faulty peripheral?

However, if multiple users are reporting that their webcams are not working, the problem is likely related to policy settings or port configuration. Administrators must review GPO settings to determine which specific configuration can block or change the microphone functionality. A tool like AD Resulting set of policies can help view the settings that are ultimately applied to the user and device.

In addition, the IT department should also check the configuration of the desktop virtualization product to ensure that other settings enable webcam functionality. If IT released an update the day before the problems occurred, the details of that update are worth investigating. Policy changes can also be the culprit. If administrators have blocked all access to USB peripherals to disable USB data leakage, webcams plugged into a USB port will not be redirected within the user session.

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