Saturday, April 25, 2009

Video Chat for elder parents over OS X: Google Video/Gmail, Google Notifier, Firefox and LogMeIn

This is a bit complex to describe fully, but I hope these hints will be of use.

Briefly, I wanted to be able to establish a video chat connection to my elderly parents. Since we both use OS X and both have at least one Intel machine I considered iChat and Google Video Chat. I didn’t consider Skype or Yahoo because that would introduce new account issues and because, as best I can tell, Google has the best technology and no worse reliability than Skype or Yahoo.

I was unimpressed with iChat; it needs to be shot (see also). That left Google Video Chat, but it has a hellacious user interface. In fact, it has the lowest usability of just about any app I routinely use. Not well suited for my 80% blind and very arthritic mother. (I’m sure that will change when Google integrates GVC with Google Voice, but really Google needs all those usability people who’ve recently quite in disgust.)

At the same time I was exploring remote maintenance options and finally settled on LogMeIn Free.

This is the combination of technologies I’ve now cobbled together:

  • Gmail/Google Video Chat: My mother’s email is managed via a Google account, even though she reads it using OS X Mail (IMAP). So she had an account.
  • Google Notifier: In theory this keeps my mother logged in to Gmail so she doesn’t have to know her username and password. In practice I’m not sure this works; these day’s I might try FF with local caching instead.
  • Logitech QuickCam Pro
  • Firefox: For better or worse this is what my mother is accustomed to
  • LogMeIn Free.
  • I created a deskbar shortcut with is simple a Gmail desktop shortcut with the iChat icon pasted into it. So it looks like a Chat app.

Here’s how it works

  1. I initiate the call from my Macbook using Firefox
  2. I use LogMeIn to take control of my mother’s machine using Safari. Then I “answer” my own call (not hard).
  3. I resize the window for my mother then drop the remote control connection.


  1. My mother passed away in 2006, but I set-up something similar. I used iChat and set up her iChat account so it always accepted an invitation. I would initiate the video chat and it automatically connected at her end. I usually saw her sitting on the couch and I would call out her name and she would come over to the computer to chat (only scared her once or twice when I called out her name).

    I believe I had to use TextEdit to change a file in iChat -- I'm sure you can Google it to find the instructions.

  2. Yes, I saw that iChat feature -- but recently Apple broke it. I assume it was the casualty of a security fix.

    Extremely annoying.

    Since Apple disabled it about a year ago and hasn't fixed it yet, it left me with a negative impression of iChat.

    It is, however, exactly the feature I wanted.

    Thanks for the comment. One day this sort of functionality will be a routine part of the care of all persons with physical and cognitive disabilities, whether arising from age, injury, or genetics.

  3. For OS X up to Snow Leopard (but not yet Lion), there is an application called Chax that will auto accept a video call or text chat from a particular user.

    My set up is this. My mom's user account has autologin. iChat is set to run at login. Chax is configured to accept a video call from me.

    That's it. When I request a video session, it just happens without her involvement.