Panasonic Sets the 3D HDTV Bar At Best Buy

A scrum of reporters pressed against Brad and Ashley as they shuffled up to the counter at a Best Buy store in Manhattan. Cameras flashed and elbows flew. Was it the end of Brangelina? Some new reality show?

Nope. It was the first sale--for a cool $2,899.99--of a 50-inch 3D Panasonic Viera TV (the TC-P50VT20) in the U.S. (That's more than a $1,000 premium over the G20 and G25 series at that size.)

It was all part of a planned press event--one of many this week in New York City--to promote the availability of 3D television. The sale had been arranged by Best Buy in conjunction with Panasonic. Also on hand were representatives from DirecTV and Fox Home Entertainment. But the real star of the show was Panasonic.

No company has been more aggressive than Panasonic at promoting 3D over the last year. The reason for that has been pretty obvious. The technology behind its plasma sets can more deftly reproduce the dual video feeds needed to create the 3D effect, and by positioning its flat panels as the best 3D solution, Panasonic hopes it can stave off the onslaught of 3DLCD sets.

In addition to learning that the set introduced today, TC-P50VT20, would be sold exclusively at Best Buy, some more details came to light. One pair of 3D eyeglasses will come with each TV; additional pairs will cost $150 each. The RealD active shutter glasses needed to watch 3D programs are not compatible with those used by other manufacturers, such as Samsung and Vizio, and Best Buy is not sure how it's going to handle this problem. (One can imagine the jokes already: A customer comes into the store and says, I want to return this $3,000 set because everything on it looks blurry!) Panasonic, on the other hand, really, really wants all the glasses to be compatible and is pushing for a standard.

The Panasonic TVs will not upconvert standard 2D HDTV programs to 3D (conversely, Samsung's 3D LCD sets will). To watch the three DirecTV 3D channels that will begin in June (one on-demand channel, one pay channel, and one free channel), customers with existing HD receivers can be upgraded with software--but only certain TVs with the necessary software will be able to decode the DirecTV channels (they are based on yet another 3D format).

No one knows how many 3D TVs will be sold this year. Estimates for the U.S. vary from 1 million to 5 million sets (from a total of about 14 million), but as Best Buy president Michael Vitelli said at the event: "We don't have any specific expectations."

At CES, Panasonic's sets appeared to have an edge over the competition, with a wider viewing angle than LCD sets for 3D and more impressive "pop-out" 3D effects. But 3D content is clearly going to be slow to materialize: At today's event, Fox said only saying one movie, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, would be available in April. DirecTV was vague about what kind of programs it would be able to offer.

More Panasonic 3D models are likely to appear this summer in 54-inch, 58-inch, and 65-inch sizes, but prices have not yet been announced.

So what did Brad and Ashley get out of the whole thing other than a 3D home theater setup and some publicity? DirecTV threw in a free subscription for a year. Now that was definitely worth the trip.

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