How to call video relay service (VRS) with Linux / Ubuntu

How to call VRS from inside Linux-based OS such as Ubuntu

Background information for people not familiar with VRS: Video Relay Service is one of the most useful service provided to deaf Americans. This service enables deaf people to initiate a phone call to hearing people by using a video application to connect with a sign language interpreter. The interpreter becomes the middleman and relays the call between the two parties.

Convo, ZVRS, Purple, Sorenson, SnapVRS are among the VRS providers offering several ways for deaf people to make phone calls.  Deaf people can call using dedicated videophones, Mac or PC applications, or even a web browser.  More recently, VRS providers have released apps for mobile platforms such as iOS or Android-based smartphones/tablets.

However, there’s a gaping hole for Linux users: there are no native applications for calling VRS!  The odds are if you’re a Linux user, you are also used to taking matters into your own hands and jumping through hoops to find a solution that works.

Convo Anywhere

Easiest Linux-based solution to initiate VRS calls: Convo Anywhere

Convo offers a flash based VRS calling application which can be run entirely inside a web browser.

Open up Chrome or Firefox with flashplugin installed then login Convo Anywhere.

After logging in, go to:

Set the permissions accordingly:

Reload Convo Anywhere and you’re all set to initiate a VRS call with your webcam and (now visible) interpreter.

While Convo Anywhere is a snap to set up and get started right away with calls, there is a trade-off:  Convo Anywhere allows you to initiate calls but not receive them from hearing people or friends who may be trying to call you back.  This is essentially one-way VRS calling application.

Which leads us to:

There is a cheat workaround that’s somewhat heavy-handed but allows the deaf person to receive calls from friends or hearing people. Instead of gunning for a native solution, there’s a virtualized solution where it’s possible to run a VRS application for the PC on an Ubuntu machine.

VirtualBox / ZVRS Z4

The approach: Install virtualbox then run a Windows virtual machine. Once inside the Windows virtual machine, download and run a VRS application for PC, such as ZVRS Z4.

Installing virtualbox:

Add the virtualbox repository to your Ubuntu machine: (Natty is currently the latest)

Inside /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb natty contrib

Run at Terminal console:

wget -q  \
-O- | sudo apt-key add -
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install virtualbox-4.0

Your account needs to be included in vboxusers group:

sudo usermod -G vboxusers  your_username

In order to have virtualbox support USB 2.0 devices, such as webcams, you must download and install the virtualbox extension pack:

VirtualBox 4.0.8 Oracle VM VirtualBox Extension Pack

Double-click the saved file and installer will automatically add it to virtualbox.

Restart virtualbox then inside virtual machine’s USB settings:

Enable USB 2.0 (EHCI) controller

To find the ID of your webcam, open a Terminal console and type:


In virtual machine’s USB settings, add device filter for the webcam (make sure the ID matches)

Inside the device filter, Set ‘Remote’ to ‘Any’

Boot up your windows virtual machine and you should be able to see the webcam video inside  ZVRS Z4 application.  Leaving this virtual machine and application running constantly, you will be able to receive incoming calls as they come in as well as initiate out-going calls.

The VirtualBox/Z4 approach will be more taxing on the machine so it’s important to run a beefy computer with sufficiently powerful CPU and enough RAM memory to handle the extra workload.

VMware Player for top performance, video-wise:

You can also use the Linux version of VMware Player to create a Windows 7 VM to run the ZVRS Z4 softphone.

After VMware Tools is installed in the Windows 7 VM, the video inside Z4 will be very close to native performance & quality. In the screenshot above, you can also enter the VMware Unity mode to display the Z4 application inside its own window.

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