Panasonic ships Skype-equipped HDTVs in US

The first HDTVs to incorporate the Skype for TV technology are now shipping in the US

The big-screen HDTV is looking more like an oversized smartphone every day--only without the mobility. Not only are Internet-enabled models that run Web applications becoming commonplace, but HDTV apps stores from top manufacturers like Samsung are opening their doors too. And now Panasonic's new line of Viera Cast HD sets will include Skype software for video calls.

Skype for TV was announced at January's Consumer Electronics Show, but the first HDTVs to incorporate the technology are now shipping from Panasonic in the US. LG Electronics also plans to add the Skype widget to 26 of its LCD and plasma sets this year. Other vendors will likely follow suit, particularly if video calling catches on with the masses.

There's one catch, however:   Skype TV video calls require a camera, naturally, and Panasonic will sell you one for US$170. The camera plugs into the Viera Cast HDTV, delivers 720p video (broadband permitting), and has a microphone that picks up audio from the sofa, the company says.

After the initial hardware purchase, Skype TV shouldn't prove too expensive. Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls are free, and connections to landlines cost pennies per minute.

Like 3D programming, Skype TV seems a bit gimmicky--at least for now. Early adopters will likely use the service on rare occasions--to Grandma on Thanksgiving, for instance--and only if the person on the other end is tech-savvy enough to use Skype TV, or perhaps Skype on a PC with a webcam.

The technology will improve over time, of course, and video calling may very well become yet another popular application for the big-screen smartphone in your living room.

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