I tried the $500 car gadget created by ex-Apple engineers -- here's what it was like

As cars get smarter, a few companies have entered the space to make sure those still driving models from the ’90s don’t feel left out.

Pearl, a startup created by former Apple engineers, is one of these companies. Since it emerged from stealth mode last June, Pearl has been selling its $US500 RearVision product: a camera that clicks to the border of your licence plate and streams live video to your smartphone.

The device is meant to give old cars a much-needed tech upgrade in an era where new vehicles are essentially computers on wheels. Most, if not all, new cars come with infotainment consoles that at the very least show what’s behind you while you’re reversing. But that barely scratches the surface of the tech entering the automotive space, from heads-up displays to Amazon’s Alexa.

Pearl’s RearVision is meant to offer a solution to car owners who want to spruce up older vehicle models in an increasingly tech-dominated industry. Here’s what it was like to use:

The Pearl RearVision comes in an unobtrusive white box that neatly organizes all of the different components. As clearly labelled on the back of the box, the RearVision works with iOS and Android devices.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

The first thing you see when you open the box is the main product itself: the licence plate border with two, high-definition cameras.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

The black bar at the bottom of the frame is actually an array of solar panels that power the HD cameras above it. Pearl says the camera will stay fully charged as long as you take the car out semi-regularly, but there's also a USB port in the back if you tend to keep your car in a garage.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

When you take the actual product out of the box, you'll see the three main components that help power the RearVision.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

There's a hexagonal screwdriver, a small computer that clicks into your OBD port, and a mount with magnetic stickers for your smartphone.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Pearl says on its website that the entire installation process should only take a few minutes, however, it took me a little over an hour. From my experience, the hardest part of the installation process was removing my old licence plate frame.

Pearl

The hexagonal screwdriver likely won't work for this. That's fine, but I feel the directions should have made it clearer that you need your own set of tools. Pearl's directions also made this step sound a lot easier than it actually was.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
That screwdriver won't work!

I ultimately raided my dad's tool box to get his electric screwdriver, but the bolts on my mum's licence plate were too rusty to budge. I gave up and decided to install the camera on my 1998 Subaru Forester, but I probably would have had to pay a mechanic if I was set on using my mum's vehicle, which isn't ideal.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Here's my Forester in all her glory, about to get a high-tech facelift!

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

It took me around 20 minutes to pry the rusty bolts from my Forester's licence plate. That's not a terrible amount of time in the grand scheme of things, but saying the entire process takes a few minutes is disingenuous, especially since some cars may be more problematic than others.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Tyler Mincey, Pearl's vice president of product, told Business Insider that there are some cars that are trickier than others. People who own certain Audi and Volvo models are given additional hardware sets free of charge because the installation process is more difficult.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

I placed my licence plate in the RearVision frame and re-attached everything using two of the four rusty bolts I unhinged a little earlier.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Pearl then tells you to use the hexagonal screwdriver to lock the entire product into place and prevent theft. I liked that the frame was innocuous enough that people likely won't notice the expensive piece of technology hanging off the back of my car.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
Overall, the RearVision is very sturdy once it's assembled. I wasn't afraid of it falling off my car, even though I'm not the most handy person.

I then clicked the small computer into the car's OBD port, which is located to the left of the steering wheel. This is how the RearVision knows when you're backing up so it can communicate with your smartphone about obstacles.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
Easy enough!

I then assembled the phone mount. You can use the mount's clip to attach it to a vent, but my iPhone 6S Plus was too heavy and made the vent droop. I ultimately attached the mount to my dashboard

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Pearl provides two different sticker options for setting up your phone. The magnetic side, pictured here, attaches to the mount itself. The sticky side is meant to hold your phone in place. I really didn't like this setup and would have preferred using some kind of clip. My phone detached from the sticker while I was reversing because the adhesive wasn't strong enough to support the 6S Plus.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Mincey said Pearl considered using a clip. 'In general we found that those clips are hard for people to use... That was a big enough barrier to discourage use for some people,' he said. He recommended using the box set's accompanying wipe to clean the back of your phone to make sure the adhesive settles.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
I accidentally used the toilette to ensure the mount's adhesive stuck to the dashboard! But generally, I would rather not have a magnet permanently attached to my phone.

The app itself is very simple to set up. Simply download it from the App Store or Google Play and make sure both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is turned on.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

The software portion of the installation process took less than 5 minutes, but I wish there had been some kind of greeting or walk-through once I had set it up to show me the different features. I didn't realise until later that there were two different camera angles: a wide shot and a close-up shot.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

That being said, the product itself is fully functional. The picture quality is crystal clear and there's both a visual and auditory warning when there's an obstacle, even if it's another vehicle cutting behind you suddenly. I never experienced any lags.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio
There's also a night mode if you want to use the camera when it's dark outside.

I didn't have to fiddle with the app too much once everything was set up. For Android phones, the app will turn on automatically once the phone clicks to its mount. The Pearl app will send a notification to iPhone users, which they can then accept to launch the app.

Pearl
Once I was on the road again, the video stream disappeared, realising I no longer needed it.

The RearVision comes with parking guidelines that react to your surroundings as your car gets closer to obstacles.

The responsive guidelines are more helpful that the traditional brackets seen on most infotainment consoles. The brackets generally aren't responsive as you move closer to objects, so you don't get the same sense of depth that the RearVision camera provides.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Naturally, Pearl does collect data through the app. Most of the data is anonymized to improve the product, Mincey said, but some isn't in order to help troubleshoot the product with customers. Mincey said none of the collected data is sold to third parties.

Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

You can get a more comprehensive breakdown of Pearl's privacy guidelines here.

If you're seriously interested in a rearview camera and don't plan on getting a new car anytime soon, it's worth spending the $500 on the RearVision. Chances are, it won't be too much of a hassle to set up, and once it's ready to go it works extremely well.

Pearl
'The fact of the matter is a lot of people aren't in the market for a new car right now,' Mincey said.

But unfortunately, the RearVision doesn't do anything that new cars aren't already programmed to do. Even though the parking guidelines are arguably better on the RearVision, it's not enough of a difference that I would use the product in a car with an existing infotainment console.

Pearl
That means RearVision only appeals to a small subset of people. Mincey declined to say how many cameras have been sold thus far.

Pearl ultimately plans to release a suite of tech add-ons for cars, but Mincey declined to get into specifics about the kinds of products on the way. 'Just by adding things onto your car you can really get the best of what's available in technology out there today and not have it trickle down through the typical car development cycle,' he said.

Pearl; Business Insider/ Samantha Lee

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