More and more new, high-end cars come with the option of a factory-installed rearview camera. But what if you want this technology without having to either buy a new car or install an expensive in-dash display? A solution is available from Virtual Reality Video Labs in the form of its VRBCS300W Wireless Back-up Camera. We hooked up the device to our 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line--a car that needs all of the added rear visibility it can get when the top is up--to see how this aftermarket device compared with factory systems.
Installation of the VRBCS300W reversing camera is extremely straightforward. Despite its claim to be wireless, the device requires two sets of wires: one to connect the rear-facing camera to the vehicle's reverse-light circuit (if your car does not come with a pre-existing hole for a license-plate light, then you will have to drill one yourself, which may be a deal-breaker for some drivers), and one to connect the monitor to the car's 12V power supply, either via the cigarette-lighter port or directly to the car's fuse box. The camera can be mounted on either the top or bottom of the license plate using the existing screws or bolts. To enable drivers to adjust the camera's angle, the VRBCS300W comes with plastic, wedge-shaped buffers, which we found useful to get the view we wanted.
When mounted on the license plate, the black camera assembly is noticeable but not obtrusive. The monitor module, which sits in a separate holder on top of the car's dashboard, is a clunkier, more conspicuous presence in the cabin. The holder itself is attached by Velcro to a self-adhesive base on the dash. This means that even when the camera and its holder are removed, the oval Velcro-covered base is still visible on the dash.
One curious design cue of the monitor module is that the port for the power wire is on the left-hand side of the unit. This means that the wires run down the driver's side of the device, adding clutter on the driver's side. A port on the bottom or on the right-hand side would be more driver-friendly. Aside from the On/Off button (curiously situated third from the top in a column of four buttons down the right-hand side of the screen), there are controls for brightness, image orientation, and contrast.
The VRBCS300W features nine different brightness settings, which can be cycled through by pressing the button repeatedly. While the cyclical selection can get a bit cumbersome, the brightness adjustability is a good feature for nighttime use. Image orientation control is the device's most advanced feature, and pressing a single button changes the orientation of the image to one of four viewing angles: normal, which shows a view with the same orientation as that seen in the rearview mirror; reverse, which shows a true, rear-looking view (as if turning your head around and looking out through the rear windshield); inverted, which flips the normal view 180 degrees on its horizontal axis; and inverted reverse, which flips the reverse view upside down.
Despite its small size (2.5 inches), the LCD color monitor is bright and provides a decent view of what's behind you. The camera, which attaches to the license plate, has a 110-degree horizontal viewing angle and an 80-degree vertical viewing angle that serves up an image similar to a fish-eye lens. This broad field of visibility provides a good general impression of the rear field of vision, and is very useful for detecting the presence of small children or crossing pedestrians--particularly considering that more than 2,400 children are hit by reversing cars each year in the U.S. alone.
Our major problem with this system, however, is its depth perception, which we found to be deceptive. Unlike some factory-installed reversing camera systems we have seen (such as that on the 2007 Infiniti M35 Sport), the VRBCS300W doesn't have any distance or guidance lines overlaying the video image. Additionally, the small size of the screen coupled with the wide viewing angle make it very difficult to judge distances using the system. When backing into a parking space, an image of the car behind at first appears to be a long way off, but then quickly becomes bigger, filling the whole screen and making it look like you are about to hit it. In reality, we found that we had at least three feet to go before we would have hit the car. These are the margins that make or break one's parking maneuvers in a packed urban area.
One solution for drivers who wish to use this camera exclusively for parallel parking is to attach it to the top of the license plate at a very steep angle so that the edge of the car's bumper is visible. However, this solution comes at a price, as the broader rear view is sacrificed in order to achieve the angle needed to view the rear bumper.
The VRBCS300W relies on a 2.4GHz wireless signal to transmit video from the camera to the display, and a note in the instruction manual states that the device may be subject to interference from cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, wireless routers, and other electrical equipment. In our experience, the signal between the camera and the monitor worked fine when we connected the system in the lab, but behaved more temperamentally, with occasional flickers, when wired to our test car.
Overall, the VRBCS300W is a useful device for general rear visibility. At $149, the device is an attractive prospect for drivers of minivans, SUVs, RVs, or cars with impeded rear vision. While it might not provide comprehensive reversing assistance, it's better than nothing. In the land of the blind spot, the one-eyed man gets the best parking slots.