True story: last summer, I replaced a fully-loaded 2015 model car with one from 2013. I was so used to having a full infotainment system that when I pulled out of the dealer’s lot, I instinctively stared at the screen…all to be reminded that this car doesn’t have a backup camera! If, like me and millions of other drivers, your car doesn’t have a backup camera, a small investment could reduce your chances of a rear-end accident by a significant amount. Aftermarket backup cameras are all over the place now, and I got to try out one of them — the Pearl RearVision.
Some aftermarket wireless backup cameras are as cheap as $140. Not so here! The Pearl RearVision wireless backup camera is a steep $500, but they’ve added extra features and a simplified design to try to make the camera worth the cost. After all, many aftermarket backup cameras require you to drill holes in your car and run wires — if you aren’t able to do that work yourself, tack on another hundred or two for professional installation. Fortunately, the Pearl RearVision system is 100 percent wireless and uses your cell phone as a monitor, so installation costs exactly $0 and should take 30 to 60 minutes.
More than Meets the Eye
The Pearl RearVision system is much more than just a backup camera — no surprise, since the company was founded by three Apple veterans who worked on developing the iPhone and iPad. Using advanced machine vision technology, it offers collision detection on top of a rearview video feed. I haven’t tested every aftermarket backup camera system, but I’m comfortable saying RearVision is one of the most well-made, well-designed, and easiest to install systems you’re going to find.
The Pearl RearVision system comprises a license plate frame, a car adapter, and a mobile app. The frame contains cameras, batteries, solar panels, and a hidden waterproof USB cable for charging. Unlike most factory backup and warning systems, there is no radar or laser technology used here. Instead, RearVision uses its cameras and complex stereo vision algorithms to sense distance between the car and obstacles, including other cars.
The car adapter is about half the size of a deck of cards and plugs into your vehicle’s OBD-II port, a socket usually mounted under the dashboard. This unit is the brains of the operation, processing the video transmitted wirelessly from the license plate frame while taking into account car data like vehicle speed and direction. It also contains a speaker that beeps when you’re about to run into something or someone.
Installation and First Impressions
I enlisted the help of my mother to see if a tech novice could easily install the license plate frame. The instructions are simple and intuitive, but the process took one hour instead of the 30 minutes the company estimates. Part of the problem for me was car-related and outside of Pearl’s control. The OBD-II port on my Subaru is located in an awkward position above the dead pedal and under the steering wheel — essentially the inside of the wheel well. I had to crawl on my back and contort a bit just to plug the car adapter into the port. Hopefully, the port is easier to access in your car.
I park my car in a garage, where there’s weak Wi-Fi and cellular signal. That made initial app setup take over an hour for me. The app checks for updates during initial install (and when restarted, but not every time you open it, thankfully), so without good wireless signal, it seemed to go into an infinite loop more than once during setup/install. I’d imagine this is because the system needs Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and location turned on to work properly, and weak signal strength wasn’t helping. Unfortunately, lots of people park in garages at home or work, so I’m not sure there’s any solution to this issue besides doing the install somewhere outside.
The app itself is very clean and user-friendly, something true of everything related to the RearVision camera. It’s very well designed — again, not a surprise from a company founded by Apple veterans.
The first device I received and tested was an early production model, and apparently a lemon. The battery lasted for maybe a week and solar charging didn’t seem to do anything. Much to my surprise, especially for a newer company, customer support was great. They helped me diagnose the problem quickly and sent me a new unit. The battery on the replacement frame had about two-thirds charge after sitting in a daylight-free parking garage for over five weeks, which is way, way better than I expected!
System Review and Performance
By default, the Pearl RearVision app shows two camera views stacked on top of each other — one wide-angle, the other giving you a more accurate sense of distance. In this second view, you have the ability to pan left and right simply by tapping the left/right sides of the image. This is a very cool feature, especially when parallel parking — no more guessing or relying on a co-pilot to figure out how close you are to the curb, or worse, running into or over it.
Just like with any factory or aftermarket system, there are learning and trust curves. It took me a bit more time and faith to trust the system, warning beeps, and guidelines than with some factory systems I’ve used. In fairness, this is not purely a RearVision problem. Because my dashboard is slightly curved, I had to put my phone in a cupholder mount with an extension arm instead of somewhere higher up on the dash. Backing up with your head tilted down is not very confidence-inspiring, so I suggest avoiding it if you can. Again, not Pearl’s fault, but I’m probably not the only one who’s going to have to mount their phone lower on the dashboard. And remember, it’s illegal in some states to have a phone (or GPS) mounted on your windshield or obscuring it. If you live in a state without those laws and can mount your phone higher up, the Pearl RearVision backup experience definitely feels more natural.
It took me several attempts to gauge the actual distance versus perceived distance from the device camera view and proximity warnings. Usually, the first proximity warning beeped and flashed on the screen when my car was almost two to three feet from any object, whether it was another car, a wall, a pole or a person. Of course, you won’t get automatic braking like you would with integrated systems in newer cars, but if you live in a big city where you often have to squeeze into impossibly small spaces, this can actually be a useful non-feature. My last car was not a fan of me trying to park six inches from a car behind me, as you often have to do when parallel parking in a city. With RearVision, if you’re careful, you can get as close to an object as you want with no emergency braking to freak you out. I am a big fan of driving a car aided by technology, rather than vice versa. Thankfully, the Pearl RearVision allows you to remain firmly in the driver’s seat.
The experience wasn’t perfect. The camera signal cut out several times while I was backing up — while parallel parking in NYC recently, the signal cut out at least half a dozen times in about a minute. In fairness, this is usually only for a few seconds, but depending on your patience and pace, a few seconds could be the difference between a successful parking attempt and an unpleasant phone call to your insurance company.
I did a fair amount of testing over the winter, which provided me the opportunity to deal with snow. On a few occasions, it seems like the system does not play well with snow banks. If I wasn’t very careful backing up and just waited for a collision warning, I ended up backing into those snow banks. In reality, you can easily avoid this problem by looking behind you, but this problem does show the limitations of machine learning.
Other than that, I was very happy with how the frame held up during a harsh winter, as it was often caked with sand, salt, and whatever else accumulates on the roads. My car is parked either in a garage or a wooded area, though, so I had to remove the frame to charge it. While solar charging is great in theory, the frame really needs direct sunlight to get any charge from the solar panels. In winter months with lots of cloudy days and fewer daylight hours, they’re not going to be so effective, especially covered in road dirt and grime. If you park somewhere with direct sunlight, you should benefit from solar charging, but if you park in a wooded area or garage like me, solar charging is probably not going to do much for you.
Fortunately, there’s a USB charging cable hidden inside the frame, so all you have to do is use the driver that comes with the device to loosen one screw, wipe it off, and plug it into any USB outlet for a few hours. I suggest wearing at least one rubber glove when doing this, at least during winter and/or if you haven’t just come from the car wash. I also suggest getting a USB charger of one sort or another for the garage so you don’t have to take it inside your home. Then again, it’s probably not a bad idea to do a full cleaning job every now and then, so perhaps this is a blessing in disguise.
Bonus Points – Cross Traffic Warnings
The Pearl RearVision is probably one of, if not the only aftermarket camera system that has rear cross traffic warnings, which I found extremely useful — when they worked. Sometimes, the system would pick up a pedestrian about to walk behind the car in a shopping mall parking lot. Another time, it failed to register a large SUV about to cross behind. This is probably a good reminder that technology is still no replacement for safe driving habits and patience.