Pi Video Calls to remote family during lock down

I’ve come to the conclusion that video calls to my remote family will be best if they’re on a big screen and everyone can sit down on a sofa without having to crowd round a camera and stare at a small screen. On phones or tablets you normally end up looking up the other peoples’ nostrils, whilst the kids fight over who can stand right in front of the camera. Anyhoo, a bit of research concluded that Skype on a Pi is a no-go, and that Google Hangouts running on Chromium is an option.

I have a Pi 4 on order (from Pimoroni of course) but in the meantime I tried it on a Pi 3 and Raspbian Buster Desktop. I connected the Pi3 to a Logitech C270 webcam, and to the TV via HDMI. It works, but with the Pi3 it’s a sometimes fails to initiate the camera, and sometimes freezes, which I assume is due to the limited bandwidth of the shared Wi-fi and USB (hence camera and microphone). Just in case it helps, I’ve included by installation process at the bottom of this post.

I have two questions:

  1. Are there any ways to improve on the above setup. E.g using the Zoom linux app, a different camera, a different OS etc. I want something that’s simple to use for each family household.
  2. Are there any ways that a Pi 3 could cope with video calls? That’s the setup my brother has.

Thanks for your time.

Installation instructions:

  1. On your PC:
    a. Download “Raspbian Buster with Desktop” https://downloads.raspberrypi.org/raspbian_latest
    b. Download BalenaEtcher https://www.balena.io/etcher/
    c. Plug your SD card in to your PC.
    d. Use BalenaEtcher to install Raspbian on to your SD card.
  2. Plug your SD card in to the Pi. Connect your Pi to a screen and a keyboard/mouse. Power it up for the first time.
  3. Follow the onscreen setup instructions. Use a good password because it will protect your google password later.
  4. Let it do the system updates, it doesn’t take too long.
  5. Restart when prompted.
  6. Plug in web cam. Nothing happens.
  7. Open up the Chromium web browser (the globe icon top left of the desktop)
  8. Open up the Chromium browser settings and set the start up page to a specific page, use the address https://hangouts.google.com
  9. Close and then reopen the Chromium browser. The first page should now be the hangouts page.
  10. Sign in to hangouts using your Google account.
  11. Start a video call. It will open up another window, Allow the browser to use your camera and microphone. In the new window, click the ‘settings’ cog top right. Set the camera and microphone to the USB device.
  12. Click done and let it find its feet. It’s probably best to close the call and the browser to let all the settings take effect.
  13. To make the browser open on startup:
    a. Open up the Terminal (black rectangle icon top right of the desktop)
    b. Type “sudo nano /etc/xdg/lxsession/LXDE-pi/autostart”
    c. Add as the last line: “@chromium-browser --start-fullscreen”
    d. Press ctrl-O to save (press enter to accept file name) then press ctrl-X to exit.
    e. Restart to see if it worked. If you want to be fancy, you can do that by typing “sudo reboot now” in to the terminal.

So far I haven’t had much luck at all. With a Pi 4 using the same process as above, Google Hangouts continues to be very buggy in use. It takes three attempts for it to get a functional connection to the C270 camera that is not a snow storm or colour-tinted. I then get about 10 seconds in to a chat before the camera then freezes irrecoverably.

Has anyone had any success getting video chat to work on a Raspberry Pi? Surely it’s powerful enough?