Enabling and supporting webcam use on remote desktops

When IT teams manage employees using remote desktops, they should make sure they can set up and troubleshoot peripheral devices, such as webcams.

Remote desktops, especially in the case of remote workers, need sufficient support for peripheral devices to carry out 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 peripheral devices can cause problems when Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) configurations aren't perfectly in place.

IT teams should ensure they have all the right prerequisites for remote desktops to have functioning webcam access and know how to troubleshoot any issues that might arise.

Ensure the webcam is functional on the local device

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

Most laptops have a mediocre internal webcam, so organizations may opt to install a higher-quality webcam. While the newer webcam typically becomes the default, users may need to specifically designate it as such.

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

If the webcam does not function at all on the local device, the issue may be related to connectivity or drivers. While most webcams are plug-and-play devices -- meaning that they automatically self-configure once plugged in -- some devices may require the installation of certain drivers or third-party software.

The connection type of the device may affect success as well. Webcams typically connect via USB but may also connect via Bluetooth, and issues with the USB input or Bluetooth could result in webcam errors. Additionally, different connection types may be disabled within an RDP user session, rendering the remote desktop unable to detect the webcam.

Manage the RDP configurations

Optimally, the webcam should be fully set up and configured prior to initiating an RDP session. While the RDP connection should recognize a peripheral after an RDP session has started, this may not occur if plug and play is not enabled or an issue occurs. It's better to avoid this possibility altogether.

There are numerous settings that can affect webcams within an RDP session. If any one of the settings described below disallows the webcam connection, then the peripheral will not function properly. These settings include the following:

  • user device RDP connection setting;
  • Group Policy Objects (GPOs), such as RDP workstation, server and domain settings; and
  • potential additional settings from Citrix, VMware, Parallels or another vendor.
The Windows Remote Desktop Connection settings console with the local resources selected
Figure 1. The extended remote desktop settings showing options for video capture devices, which includes webcams

On the user device, IT admins 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 into is under Local Resources > Local devices and resources > More… (Figure 1). Once on the proper screen, the Video capture devices checkbox simply needs to be enabled. By default, this setting is not enabled, so organizations should either manage this setting directly or inform users how to make this change.

In addition, IT may need to enable Other Supported Plug and Play devices, including the Devices that I plug in later checkbox. Further, it may be necessary to open the Configure remote audio settings and make adjustments that affect the webcam's microphone feature.

The most common reason that a webcam doesn't function as expected is due to GPO settings. Keep in mind that there are two places where GPO settings can alter the RDP session: the local remote desktop workstation and the server and domain-wide settings. Disabling webcam, video or other connection settings within either of these locations hinders webcam functionality.

Within Computer Configuration > Policies > Administrative, Templates > Windows Components > Remote Desktop Services > Remote Desktop, and Session Host > Device and Resource Redirection, there are various settings that could cause issues for webcam usage as well. These settings are available both as Active Directory (AD) GPOs that encompass an organizational unit within the domain and as local GPOs that only affect that particular remote desktop workstation or server.

The list of GPOs with arrows pointing at those most relevant for remote desktop webcam sessions
Figure 2. The various GPOs pertaining to webcam settings on remote desktops

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

Administrators should exercise extreme caution when making one-off changes to a remote desktop workstation or server, such as altering settings while troubleshooting an issue. If IT admins make any temporary changes to local GPOs, they should reverse them immediately. In an event where this isn't possible, IT should go as far as to deploy a newly provisioned remote desktop workstation and then revert the compromised workstation back to its basic state with all the correct local and domain GPOs applied.

Other settings related to video playback, audio and plug-and-play device redirection can prevent users from being able to properly utilize webcams. Unfortunately, just one of these misapplied settings can wreak havoc for administrators, so IT has to carefully monitor any webcam-related settings.

If someone has altered video playback settings, the user may perceive a webcam issue because playback does not occur as expected within the RDP session. For example, if a user records a video but was unable to view the playback or the audio did not function properly, the user may not realize that the webcam did indeed function properly. It would only be the playback that failed in this example.

If a third-party virtualization product is in use, IT can manage and configure additional settings. These settings may prevent or alter 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 files a ticket saying something like "my webcam is not working," IT needs to take several steps to respond -- especially if this user needs a webcam for business-critical tasks, such as video conferencing. If this issue is only reported by a single user, it is likely related to either the physical webcam or its configuration. In this case, it is best to start at the user device and ensure functionality as a first step via a series of questions and a troubleshooting session. Some questions to ask the user are the following:

  • Does the webcam function 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, has the webcam worked as intended previously? When was the last time that the user was able to use the webcam locally and within an RDP session?
  • What appears within the local RDP connection settings? Has anyone revised these settings recently?
  • Can the user test this webcam on another user device to rule out a faulty peripheral?

However, if multiple users report that their webcams are not working, the issue is likely related to policy settings or port configuration. Administrators should review GPO settings to determine which specific configuration may be blocking or altering microphone functionality. A tool such as AD Resultant Set of Policy can help review the settings that are ultimately applied to the user and device.

In addition, IT should also review the desktop virtualization product's configuration to ensure that other settings are enabling webcam functionality. If IT pushed out an update the day before the issues arose, the details of that update are worth investigating. Changes to policies could be the culprit as well. If administrators have blocked all access to USB peripheral devices to disable thumb drive data leakage, then webcams that plug into a USB port will not be redirected within the user session.

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