In the future, everyone will have giant videophones in their living rooms. Families will no longer awkwardly huddle around laptops with grainy webcams when they video chat with friends and relatives; they'll do it from the comfort of their sofas and rocking chairs. The future begins this year.
Panasonic, LG, and Samsung all recently announced plans to release TVs with built-in Skype software by the middle of 2010. All of Panasonic's VieraCast and LG's NetCast-enabled plasma, LCD and LED models, as well as Samsung's 7000 and 8000-series LED sets will come with the newfangled widget. Panasonic and LG TVs will support 720p video calls and we suspect that Samsung models will too, though we're waiting for an official word.
In case you've been living under a rock without an internet connection for the past three years, Skype is a free program that allows users to make free voice and video calls over the internet to any other Skype user, anywhere in the world, completely free of charge. All you need is a broadband internet connection and a username. Did I mention that it's free?
There are more than half a billion Skype accounts worldwide, and in the third quarter of 2009 alone, those users chatted for 27.7 billion minutes. More than one-third of those minutes were video calls, so it's a huge part of Skype's appeal. Users "are increasingly interested in conducting video calls away from their computers," Josh Silverman, CEO of Skype, said in a press release.
Internet-ready TVs are the next logical frontier for Skype and video chatting in general. It just makes sense. Think of the most inconvenient part about video chats: Physically sitting in front of a small computer screen is far from luxurious, especially when several people are crowded around the screen, mugging for the camera. Skype on a big, high-def TV makes the whole experience much easier on the eyes, neck, and knees--you won't even need to get up off the couch anymore. And judging by the demo video below (unintentionally goofy as it is), the Panasonic user interface seems easy enough for grandma and grandpa to use, and hopefully LG and Samsung follow suit.
The bit of bad news in all of this is that users will have to purchase separate webcams in order to use Skype. So really, it's not entirely free. Nothing has officially been confirmed or denied, but predictions put the HD webcams at anywhere from $120 to $200 (microphones will be built into the webcam units). Hopefully the manufacturers will offer some sort of package deal, but we won't be holding our breath for that prospect.
In the grand scheme of it all, this is a sign that Internet-ready TVs are finally maturing. Manufacturers are realizing what users really want in an internet-ready TV. Just because a TV can do something doesn't mean that it can do it well, or that it should do it at all. The most worthwhile widgets so far have been streaming video services like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon on Demand, and Vudu. Social networking widgets, on the other hand, haven't found a true purpose on a TV screen yet. Basically, we want more stuff like Netflix and Skype, less stuff like Twitter and Facebook.
We'll keep you posted on which exact models will come with Skype and how much they'll cost as more details emerge.