Want to keep elderly parents company virtually during the pandemic? – How to create a FaceTime Portal between iPads

When the Coronavirus Pandemic hit and I started working from home, I started worrying about my elderly parents who could no longer babysit my niece and nephew on a regular basis, go to church, go to restaurants, meet with friends, etc..  They were getting lonely and were starting to feel the strain of their new-found isolation.  Since I had recently bought them a Wyze cam for Christmas and had one of my own, and had previously shared those feeds to help me monitor their security feed, I hacked together a sub-standard and annoying “portal” using the cameras and our respective iPads.  Theirs was in their family room and I set mine up in my office. For most of the year, I kept them company during the work day and it did wonders for their ability to cope with this new world.

The solution had all sorts of problems though. There was a significant audio delay, the connection would go down from time to time, the Wyze interface was difficult for my parents to use, I had to wear headphones to prevent echo feedback (since Wyze has no echo cancellation), and it seemed that the connection would get choppy whenever they pulled out their phones (seemed like an interference issue).  I’d bought them a WiFi Extender , but it didn’t seem to help.  During a particularly choppy conversation recently, I started googling for alternate solutions and I happened upon a github project called teleportme by PaperCutSoftware, which was a simple scheduled shell script on a pair of Mac Minis running FaceTime to establish a portal between 2 coastal offices above each office’s water coolers.  They were scheduled to establish a FaceTime call every morning and hang up after work.  I wouldn’t have thought of using FaceTime running for hours a day, but apparently it was possible and reliable – and you don’t need a cell provider account to use it, so I set out to see if I could do this using a pair of iPads.  Using tips from their setup, this is how I figured out how to do it.

I set up our 2 iPads to do the same thing as teleportme, except for the scheduled calls (which I have not investigated, and may(?) be possible, but instead, I created a single-tap Siri Shortcut on the home screen on each of our iPads that one of us would tap each morning to start up the portal, and we would manually hang up at the end of my work-day.  This solution will require that your iPad(s) hence forth will serve a single purpose (endpoints for your portal), so if you use the iPad(s) for anything else, this may not be the best solution for you, although you may be able to modify this solution to be one-ended so that only one iPad is re-purposed and the other is used as normal.  I wanted however to allow either end to be able to start the portal, so that’s what the following instructions are for:

  1. Create 2 iCould accounts (1 on each iPad) for exclusive use by each end of the portal.
    • Sign off of any current iCloud account on each iPad (Settings -> Your name -> Sign Out (at the bottom)) and (create an) sign into one of the new iCloud account you created for the portal on each iPad.
    • If you re-use an old iCloud account, be sure that that email address is not in your contact card because otherwise, all of your calls will be auto-answered by your portal iPad
  2. Turn on Auto-answer in settings and set the delay time how you wish (I set mine to 0 seconds)
    • I find the fastest way to find this is to just search settings for “Auto-answer”, especially since this page may be in different places in different iOS versions, but you can find it under Settings -> Accessibility -> Touch -> Call Audio Routing -> Auto-Answer Calls
  3. In the Contacts app, create a contact on each iOS device that has the portal iCloud account of the other iOS device.  E.g. I created a contact for my iCloud account on my parents’ iPad and vice versa.
  4. If you want to be able to start the portal via a single tap from either device using an icon on the home screen.  On each iPad:
    • Install the Siri Shortcuts app (if you haven’t already)
    • Create a shortcut with a single action: Make a FaceTime call to the other iOS device’s iCloud portal account you created
    • Share the shortcut and select “add to home screen” (choose a name, icon color, and icon glyph)

To manually start the portal, just tap the icon you added to the home screen. Depending on the iOS version, you may end up in the Siri Shortcuts app, which requires a second tap: tap the green bar at the top of the screen to switch to the FaceTime app. (This was the case for my parents’ iPad, but not mine.)

Either party may start the portal, so I decided that scheduling calls wasn’t too important.  When you start the portal, it may take a couple seconds for the other iPad to automatically pick up (despite the 0 second delay).

Since FaceTime will auto-answer any call, you should restrict who can call either account so that random people can’t just connect to your new portal. You can do this using the do not disturb setting described here, but in short, for each of the new iCloud accounts:

  1. On a Mac computer (can’t be done on iOS), log into icloud.com using the new iCloud account and create a new Contact Group in Contacts and add the contact card for the other iCould account you created in step 3 above
    • Make sure iCloud Contacts are synced on each iPad
  2. Go to Settings -> Do Not Disturb
    • Turn on Do Not Disturb
    • Turn off Scheduled
    • Tap Allow Calls From and select the group created in step 1

It also appears that you may be able to create a Siri Shortcut automation that can schedule the portal to start and stop by using a Siri Shortcuts Automation, but I will leave that exercise for the reader.  Good luck to everyone during this pandemic.  I wish you all good health and I hope this helps your elderly loved ones!

UPDATE/ADDEMNDUM/CAVEAT: I recently discovered that if one of the 2 iPads is updated to iOS 14 and the other is 12.5, the smooth stability of the connection completely goes away and FaceTime calls only last about a minute before getting a “Call Failed” error. In either case (when my iPad had 13.x or 14.x, there would be a darkening of the screen with a “Poor connection” message. The difference is that when my iPad had 13.x, the connection would always recover and reestablish a good image… But after my iPad was updated to 14.x, the poor connection always results in a “Call Failed” message. I went through a process with Apple Support to wipe and re-install a fresh iOS copy on my updated iPad. They assured me this would fix the frequently recurring “Call Failed” issue, however, after having gone through that, the “Call Failed” issue persists. I can’t keep our portal open for more than a couple minutes. When I tried to get my parents to update their iOS, I discovered that their iPadOS is maxed out at 12.5 (e.g. it’s either a first or second gen. iPad Air) and they cannot update past that. I continue to work with Apple Support to get a resolution to this issue. They claim that the minimal compatible iOS version for FaceTime to work is 12.1.4, but so far, it seems that 12.5 and 14.3 are incompatible for a reliable FaceTime call. 12.5 and 13.x (I think I was on 13.3) work very well together. Something Apple did in 14.x makes it not work well.

UPDATE2: At some point in the last few months, Apple fixed what must have been a server-side issue with FaceTime stability between an iOS device maxed out at 12.5.x and one at 14.x, as described in the above update. There had been an iOS update from 12.5 to 12.5.1, which we applied to my parents’ first or second gen iPad Air, but multiple FaceTimes after that proved the problem was just as bad as ever: a poor connection was always followed by a dropped call roughly a minute into any call. But my random periodic testing eventually showed that the problem went completely away and stability returned. I can only assume that Apple fixed something on their end that was preventing recovery from a poor connection.

Now however, there is a new issue, although I’m not certain *how* new (because I’m always the one that activates the portal). We visited my parents for Easter and I attempted to demonstrate to my parents how *they* can activate the portal on their own, but repeated attempts failed. My iPad Mini (a 7 hour drive away), failed to auto-answer every time. I could see that it was connected to my network via VPN, but it refused to pick up. When I got home yesterday, I unlocked the screen and saw the multiple missed calls, and through further testing, discovered that it would not auto-answer when the iPad was locked. It *would* answer when unlocked. That’s not the behavior with my parents’ iPad. It auto-answers even when the screen is locked. And I know that when my iPad Mini was on 13.7, it would auto-answer when the screen was locked. The Mini is currently at 14.4.1, though I don’t know if this issue is new with that version or whether it was also present in version 14.4.0.

UPDATE2.1: I just got off the phone with Apple Support. This portal solution may not work as intended in the future. Apparently, they intentionally implemented a security feature (in 14.x) that disables auto-answer when the screen is locked. The intent conveyed to me is to be able to answer using Face ID (even though my iPad Mini 4 doesn’t have Face ID). Though when I explained that when Do Not Disturb is turned on and “Allow calls from” is set to a contact group (possibly also involving the auto-answer delay set to 0s – will test), there is no indication at all that a call is coming in, so even if I had Face ID, how would I know to unlock the screen? They admitted that that appears to be a bug, but to me, what is the point of auto-answer if you have to do something to answer? If someone is a quadriplegic and can’t turn their head, and the iOS device is on an arm pointed at them and can’t see their turned away face, how does auto-answer help that person? In the meantime, I guess I will have to set the iPad to never lock and have the screen always on if I want auto-answer to always work, though that’s a really energy inefficient thing to do… I suggest anyone who would like this to work, submit Apple Feedback and request that auto-answer auto-answer when the screen is locked and/or create a setting to auto-answer even when the screen is locked.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s