Will Skype TVs Bring Video Calling to the Masses?

The boob tube's transformation from passive entertainment device to Web-enabled home appliance--essentially a big-screen computer--has taken another step forward. Panasonic and LG Electronics have announced plans to add Skype's video and voice calling software to their upcoming lineup of Internet-ready HDTVs.

With the right hardware, including a Skype-enabled TV and an HD webcam, families will be able to video chat in high-definition. Obviously, the grandparents-to-grandkids holiday call would be a natural for this type of setup.

Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls will be free, just as they are for PC users. Voice conference calls with up to 24 other parties are possible--although probably not desirable.

True, video calling via computer has been around for a few years. And since many laptops now have integrated webcams--meaning no additional hardware to buy--video chatting has never been easier for PC users.

But PC-based video calls are best suited to one-on-one communications. The display is small, and the video and audio capabilities aren't designed for participants scattered across a living room.

A big-screen HDTV, however, could make home video conferencing a lot more popular, particularly with consumers who aren't savvy laptop users. Panasonic will sell a specially designed video camera that plugs directly into its Skype-ready line of Viera Cast HDTVs. The camera has a microphone that easily picks up audio from "couch distance," the company says, and that delivers 720p video--well, assuming the user's Internet bandwidth can handle it.

There are many unanswered questions, though, including the total cost of the HDTV video hardware setup--and ease of use. Will Skype TV be a breeze to configure? And will it be worth the price, particularly if users only make a few video calls per year?

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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