In 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a rule specifying an area behind every vehicle which must be visible to the driver when the vehicle is placed into reverse. 79 FR 19177, 49 CFR 571. Full compliance is required for all new vehicles by May 1, 2018. The agency anticipates that vehicle manufacturers will use rearview video systems and in-vehicle visual displays to comply with the rule. As a result, if you are not currently driving a vehicle with a backup camera in it, your next new car will likely include this technology. The agency adopted this rule because drivers using these systems "avoid crashes with an unexpected test object at a statistically significant higher rate than drivers using the standard complement of vehicle equipment."
If you are driving a vehicle that does not have a rearview video system installed, you can have one installed. It typically involves installing a camera on the back of your car, having a hole drilled to run wires to the front of your car, and installing a screen in the front of your car. Good equipment often runs a few hundred dollars, and once you add the cost of installation, you can easily spend well over $500. Some former Apple employees who previously worked on the iPod and iPhone decided to start the company Pearl to sell a $499.99 solution that works with your iPhone called the Pearl RearVision. Using the iPhone as a video screen makes sense because it is already useful to mount an iPhone in your car to listen to music or podcasts, take and receive telephone calls, use hand-free technology to read and respond to messages, etc. Pearl sent me a free sample of the RearVision to review it, and I've been trying it out for the last few weeks. This system works very well, and while $500 is a substantial investment, you will appreciate using this device every time you need to parallel park or need to go into reverse and don't have a clear view through your windows of what is behind you.
I'm sure that there are some of you out there who can remove and replace an in-dash stereo system on your car without breaking a sweat, but that is definitely not me. Thus, I was a little worried that installing something like this on my car would be challenging. To the contrary, it was simple ... so easy that when my 11 year old son showed interest in what I was doing, I let him do much of the work with me. The most time-consuming part was finding the correct size wrench in my toolbox to remove the two bolts holding my current license plate on my car (an older model Honda Accord). Pearl doesn't give you any parts for that because every license plate is attached in a different fashion.
But once you remove your current license plate, the rest is a piece of cake. The RearVision camera is part of a license plate holder. You simply put your license plate in the holder and then attach that to your vehicle using the same bolts that you used to remove your license plate. You then use some additional, tamper-resistant bolts that are included with the RearVision (and for which Pearl gives you the tool) to attach the front part of the RearVision to its frame, with your license plate sandwiched in-between. Next, you plug a small car adapter into the OBD port that is typically underneath your car dash. Pearl has a video on its website that shows the installation process.
There are three parts of the RearVision hardware. First, the Camera Frame holds your license plate. It includes two HD cameras, one that is used during the day, and one that is optimized for seeing at night. The Camera Frame has a solar panel on it so that it can charge whenever exposed to sunlight. It is possible to remove the frame and charge it via USB, but you should never need to do that because just a little sunlight should provide ample power for the frame. The use of a solar panel is smart; it means that you don't need to run power to your license plate for this product to work.
Second, the Car Adapter plugs into your car's OBD port (a port that technicians will sometimes use to read diagnostic data from your car). The Car Adapter is a miniature computer which talks wirelessly to the Camera Frame to get the video, and then the Car Adapter analyzes that video in real-time and sends the video wirlelessly to your iPhone using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (more on that below).
Third, there is a car mount to hold your iPhone. It is included with the RearVisision system, but because Pearl also sells the car mount on its own, I posted a separate review of that product last week. Read that review to learn how the car mount works.
A free Pearl app on your iPhone shows you the video from the cameras. The app has been regularly updated to add new features and improve the Pearl RearVision. For example, in late November of 2016, version 1.3 added (optional) guidelines to help you when backing up into a parking spot and when parallel parking. in December of 2016, the app added a notification feature (described below). So like the iPhone itself, this is a product with a history of improving itself after you buy the hardware.
How it Works
When you first get in your car, assuming that you have notifications turned on, you get an alert on your iPhone (and Apple Watch) from the Pearl app. Swipe that alert on your iPhone to start the Pearl app. If you have alerts turned off, then you'll need to manually open the Pearl app.
When the Pearl app starts, it automatically goes into the mode to display video from the rear camera. What you see on your screen depends upon whether your iPhone is in portrait or landscape orientation. In portrait orientation, the top part of your screen shows a portion of what the camera can see behind you. The bottom portion of the screen shows you everything that the camera can see behind you, with a yellow bar at the top indicating whether the top part is showing the middle, left, or right view from the camera. You can swipe to change the view. For example, if you are backing up in a parking lot with traffic coming from one direction, what you really want to see are cars coming from that direction, so you can focus the camera to that direction.
I prefer to put my iPhone in a landscape orientation, which shows you almost all of the field of view at once.
You can make minor adjustments to the view by tapping the screen and using the on-screen controls at the top. You can adjust the horizontal plane of view to see up or down a little bit more. You can also switch from wide to super-wide view and back.
There are three controls at the bottom of the screen. First, there is a button to turn Night Mode on or off. When Night Mode is on, the Pearl RearVisision switches to its second camera which is more sensitive to the infrared spectrum and gives you an excellent picture at night. This occurs automatically after sunset, but I suppose that the button could be useful if it is a dark day but not yet sunset. The second button turns audible and visual obstacle alerts on or off. The third button brings up the app settings.
The main question that I had about this product was how much more would I see using the camera versus not having the camera? The answer was pretty astonishing to me. The following picture shows what I see in the parking lot at my office as I am preparing to backup, and I have superimposed some graphics on top. First, I show what in the image I could see just using my rear view mirror. As you can tell, that is only a very small part of the image. Second, I added dotted lines to show how far left and right I could see by turning my head around and looking through the rear window on my car. As you can tell from this image, the wide angle camera at the very back of my car shows me much more to the left and right that I can see by turning my head and using my rear window.
If there are no cars parked next to me in the parking lot, well then I can also turn around and look through the side windows in my car to see more. But often in my parking lot there are cars on both sides of me — or even worse, a big truck, SUV, van, or other large vehicle. In those circumstances, I really cannot see very much as I start to back out — nothing past those dotted lines in the above image. Thus, I have to go slow and hope that any oncoming car would see me and stop in time. But with the Pearl RearVision, I can see much, much more behind me. I am amazed how much to the side the camera can see with its wide angle lens; it is almost like someone got out of the car and stood behind my car to tell me what is coming.
Unlike systems that are built-in to a car, the RearVision doesn't have any way to know when you are done backing up. (For some models of cars, Pearl might be able to get that information from the OBD port, so I've seen some mention that this could be a added in a software update, but nothing official has been announced.) But the Car Adapter does know from the OBD how fast your car is going, and thus once you hit 10 mph, the device concludes that you are done backing up, the video feed ends, and the Pearl app changes its screen. This is done for at least two reasons. First, it could be a distraction to see live video of what is behind you while you are driving. Second, sending the video uses up the battery in the RearVision, so there is no reason to keep it running when you are finished backing up. (If you are using a car model that does not provide speed information to the Car Adapter, then the video stops after 60 seconds.)
When the video feed ends, the app switches to a very handy mode — a launch screen with four large buttons that you can tap to launch another app. (Or you can manually jump to this mode by double-tapping the screen while video is being shown.) The mode works in both landscape and portrait view. If you do need to go back to the rear camera, just tap the RearVision icon.
The two apps that I am most likely to want to use after I am done backing up are the Overcast app (to play a podcast) or the Music app (to listen to music). I have the Maps app and Waze app on the other two buttons. But you can configure these buttons however you want. Currently, the other apps that you can choose from (if you have them installed) are Google Maps, MapQuest, Scout, Amazon Music, Audible, Google Play Music, Mixcloud, Pandora, Plex, Radio.com, Shazam, SoundCloud, Spotify, TIDAL, Apple's Podcasts app, ESPN, NPR News, Sticher, GasBuddy, Luxe, MarkMe, Parkmobile, PayByPhone Parking and SpotHero.
A typical workflow for me is that I will get in my car, plug my iPhone in to charge it and put the iPhone on the magnetic car mount, start a podcast in the Overcast app to play it via Bluetooth in my car, and then start the Pearl app. I will use the Pearl app to backup, and then after it switches to the launcher screen I'll tap the Overcast app to see the controls for the podcast I'm listening to.
The other time that I use Pearl RearVision while driving is when parallel parking. The RearVision is great for giving you information on how close you are to the car behind you. After starting the app, I can see the car behind me. I then start to backup.
The Pearl app can tell as an object approaches. When you get too close, the Car Adapter beeps and a red rectangle appears around the picture. The beep comes from the Car Adapter rather than the Pearl App because if your device was on silent, you could miss the alert.
The Pearl system uses three types of alerts. When you are about 6.5 feet from an object, you will hear the first beep. When you are about 4 feet away, you get another beep. When you are about two feet away, you will get a continuous beep and see a red border on the video. Remember, with a wide angle lens, objects are closer than they appear, so when you get the alert with the red border, you don't want to back up much more.
In practice, I found that my parallel parking skills improved immensely with the Pearl RearVision. Long past the point where I would normally assume that I need to stop, the RearVision would show me that I have a little more space to go. Being able to back up even more lets me get into any spot much more quickly and easily. Fortunately, I don't have to do a lot of parallel parking in my life, but if you do, then you will really love this product.
One more note on alerts. Whenever your iPhone is showing video from the camera, you will get a beep notifying you if an object is detected within 6.5, 4, or 2 feet of the car. So if a person (or child) starts to walk behind your car, you should get a warning. But if you are not currently running the Pearl app, or if the video portion of the Pearl app is off, then you don't get any alerts. I know that with some built-in car systems, you get alerts any time something is close to your car, even if you are not moving and someone just walks close to your car — which can be annoying. So I suppose you could call this a feature or a flaw, but just keep in mind that if you want the audio and visual alerts that something is close to the back of your car, you need to have the app running and the video turned on.
Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth
The Car Adapter has two different ways to communicate with your iPhone. The preferred method, which provides the best picture, is Wi-Fi. When you first configure the PearlVision, you connect your iPhone to a private Wi-Fi network in your car created by the Car Adapter. If for some reason the iPhone cannot connect using Wi-Fi, it can also connect to the Car Adapter via Bluetooth.
Because I have off-street parking at my house, I don't really need a backup camera as I leave home. That's a good thing because the Wi-Fi in my house is more than strong enough to cover my driveway, so my iPhone stays connected to my home Wi-Fi as I am getting in my car and doesn't automatically connect to the Car Adapter via Wi-Fi. That means that if I do use the PearlVision as I am backing up at my house, the video uses Bluetooth and is of lower quality. Note also that in the default setting, your iPhone cannot send audio via Bluetooth to your car's speakers at the same time that your iPhone is getting video via Bluetooth from the Pearl RearVision. Thus, you cannot listen to music or a podcast while you are backing up. However, in the settings in the Pearl app, under iPhone audio, you can turn off the "Pause for Bluetooth Video" feature to enable both at the same time.
Fortunately for me, the times that I have wanted to use PearlVision — in the parking lot at my office, when parallel parking on the street, when backing up in the parking lot at a store — my iPhone has never been connected to another Wi-Fi network so it automatically connects to the PearlVision Wi-Fi and I get full quality video. Just keep in mind that if you are planning to use RearVision primarily in a location where your iPhone will already be connected to another Wi-Fi network, you'll want to first manually select the RearVision Wi-Fi network in the Settings app on your iPhone before backing up to get the best quality picture.
At $499, this is probably not a product that you will buy on a whim. And because you only spend a small portion of the time in your car going in reverse, this is a product that you will probably only use for a minute or so every day. But there is a good reason that the government is making rearview video systems (or something equivalent, whatever that might be) mandatory starting next year; they provide a significant safety improvement, and as a bonus, they make parking, especially parallel parking, much easier. Everything about the Pearl RearVision is nicely done, and I'm not surprised that it came from the minds of former Apple engineers. Using an iPhone as a screen for a backup camera makes a lot of sense, and the Pearl RearVision works really well. If you are using a car that doesn't already have a rearview camera and you want the functionality and safety that you get with a rearview video system, the Pearl RearVision is a nice upgrade and I can recommend it.