Panasonic’s VIERA CAST Bag Of Tricks : Skype, Netflix, 3D, And More

Earlier this year, it seemed that every television manufacturer was announcing a unit with either Skype built in or 3D functionality. Last week, I received an email inviting me to come check out Panasonic’s latest and greatest at their touring presentation that was coming through Scottsdale this week. The draw for me was the 3D, but I found a lot more when I arrived.

3D TVs With Skype

Maybe you’re thinking what I was thinking in the car on the way there… Can 3D stick around this time or is it just going to be hot for a while and die out again? It’s hard to say, but Panasonic is not only betting that 3D is here to stay, but they’re throwing in everything else just in case.

Panasonic 3D HD TVs

One of the VIERA CAST HDTVs I saw today, the VIERA TC-P50G25 Plasma (seen above for $1,499), included the ability to make video calls with Skype (requires an add-on camera), view YouTube videos, browse through photos on Picasa, view and stream movies instantly with Netflix or Amazon Video, and even peruse and update Twitter. To top it off, they threw in a weather screen with forecasts, Pandora radio, Bloomberg, and Fox Sports. You can even browse the web with it, which is probably why you can hook up a keyboard to one of the USB ports. Unfortunately, the demo played from a Blu-Ray disc, so it’s hard to say how the video streaming is and Skype won’t be available for use on VIERA CAST until June of this year. Regardless, it looks very promising. The geek inside me yearns to make a video call on a 50 inch screen without a lot of effort and that is a reality within reach. This model does not do 3D.

The PxxVT25 models, on the other hand, offer 3D and it looks awesome. To be fair, I haven’t seen any other 3D televisions first hand, so my basis for comparison is my 2D LCD and 3D at the movie theaters. That said, this blows my 2D away and makes the movie theater 3D seem a bit lacking. The first demo was with a movie, which looked great, but the real treat was the second demo I saw with some game playing in 3D. It looked incredible and the best part is that the games don’t all have to be made in 3D. There’s software that will make them work in 3D as long as you’re displaying them on one of these 3D TVs.

How To Watch TV In 3D

The televisions mentioned above display a 3D image, but where does that come from and how do you view it? Panasonic tells me they’ll have three channels loaded with 3D programming on DirecTV, and it sounded like 3D programming from other vendors will still work. All that’s left is those paper 3D glasses with the plastic red and blue lenses, right?

Panasonic 3D HD TVs

Not this time. This time, your 3D experience makes use of their special 3D glasses (TY-EW3D10). While I’d like to try the old paper glasses, I’m afraid these are the ones needed to make it work. They’re pretty cool and although the video doesn’t do the experience justice, you can see how they work below.

The problem is that the $150/pair price tag can be prohibitive, especially if you’re thinking about a family of four or five. They’re cheaper than some competitors, but still a bit up there. They definitely look $150 cooler than the old paper 3D glasses, though. I asked if Panasonic planned to bundle family packs of the eye wear and was told that it wasn’t planned yet but could happen as the consumer market accepts 3D more and more.

Cameras and Camcorders

In addition to all this 3D business, the tour included some new cameras of varying levels as well as video cameras. I honestly didn’t spend quite enough time with the video cameras, but it may have been due to all the time spent playing with the DMC-GH1K 12.1 MP digital camera. I’m not about to say I don’t like my Canon Rebel XTi because I love it, but the GH1K was wooing me with features I’ve been missing out on like 1080P HD video, a larger screen that swivels around, Live View, a more compact design, and a more widely used SD storage format (compared to the Compact Flash I use now). At $1499, it is almost twice what I paid for my camera, but still attractive.

Also attractive was the $399 DMC-ZS7K which more than a point-and-shoot, but not quite a DSLR. Every time I thought it had a lot of features I was shown one more. Personally, I’m looking to spend about half that on my next point-and-shoot camera but the feature list is enough to loosen up most any wallet. There’s the basics like auto focus and face targeting, but it also knows the difference between a face and, say, a cactus and adjusts photo settings the moment it makes the distinction. Better still, it can recognize specific faces and remember who it’s taking a photo of and label the photo properly. The 16X Intelligent Zoom was a nice surprise, too. The zoomed image wasn’t pixelated at all until zoomed all the way in and even then, it wasn’t much. Finally, the ZS7K records HD quality video as well, so I could replace my digital camera and my video camera with this one device.

The Touch The Future Tour

What I went to today was called the Touch the Future Tour. Panasonic is wandering around the country with all this cool stuff and showing people what all of it does. If you get a chance, the 3D is best seen in person. They’ll be dragging all their electronics to these cities next:

3/25 – 3/27 Philadelphia King of Prussia Mall – North Gulph Road
3/29 – 3/31 Minneapolis IDS Tower – 80 8th Street South
3/29 – 3/31 San Francisco One Market Plaza – 1 Market Street
3/31 – 4/2 Washington, DC Union Station – 50 Massachusetts Ave, NE
4/6 – 4/8 Dallas Grapevine Mills Mall – 3000 Grapevine Mills Parkway
4/6 – 4/8 Seattle Top of the Market – 93 Pike Street, Suite 307
4/7 – 4/9 Atlanta 595 North – 595 North Ave, NW Atlanta
4/12 – 4/14 Houston The Warehouse – 4108 Dupont Street
4/15 – 4/17 Miami Ice Palace – 59 Northwest 14th Street

Final Thoughts

Panasonic delivered more than I had planned for and showed off some really cool stuff. The new television offerings (3D and otherwise) were certainly giving me TV envy and I just bought a new LCD TV a few months back. The cameras (that I hadn’t really even gone to see) have me formulating evil plans in my head to convince my wife that I have two birthdays this year. I want it all, but would “settle” for any of the 3D TVs and the ZS7K camera.

Pandora Starts Charging For Music But I Don’t Mind

Pandora.com, for those unaware, is a site that allows you to listen to the music you like while suggesting new music. The only downside is that I had to go out and buy a bunch of new music I ended up liking. They even have an iPhone app, so I can listen in the car and jack it right into my auxiliary input. It’s a great service and it’s free (mostly) until now.

pandora charges for music

Thanks to some new(ish) royalties legal magic, they’ve had to dance around with Capitol Hill to find a decent solution that involves money exchanging hands for this copyrighted material. To summarize the email below, you can either pay for the $36/yr premium (ad-free, high-quality) service or pay about a buck if you listen to more than 40 hours in a month. Really? Seriously? That’s not bad. I’m fine with paying the $0.99 for being a power listener. Are you?

Hi, it’s Tim –

I hope this email finds you enjoying a great summer Pandora soundtrack.

I’m writing with some important news. Please forgive the lengthy email; it requires some explaining.

First, I want to let you know that we’ve reached a resolution to the calamitous Internet radio royalty ruling of 2007. After more than two precarious years, we are finally on safe ground with a long-term agreement for survivable royalty rates – thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our listeners who voiced an absolute avalanche of support for us on Capitol Hill. We are deeply thankful.

While we did the best we could to lower the rates, we are going to have to make an adjustment that will affect about 10% of our users who are our heaviest listeners. Specifically, we are going to begin limiting listening to 40 hours per month on the web. Because we have to pay royalty fees per song and per listener, it makes very heavy listeners hard to support on advertising alone. Most listeners will never hit this cap, but it seems that you might.

We hate the idea of capping anyone’s usage, so we’ve been working to devise an alternative for listeners like you. We’ve come up with two solutions and we hope that one of them will work for you:

* Your first option is to continue listening just as you have been and, if and when you reach the 40 hour limit in a given month, to pay just $0.99 for unlimited listening for the rest of that month. This isn’t a subscription. You can pay by credit card and your card will be charged for just that one month. You’ll be able to keep listening as much as you’d like for the remainder of the month. We hope this is relatively painless and affordable – the same price as a single song download.

* Your second option is to upgrade to our premium version called Pandora One. Pandora One costs $36 per year. In addition to unlimited monthly listening and no advertising, Pandora One offers very high quality 192 Kbps streams, an elegant desktop application that eliminates the need for a browser, personalized skins for the Pandora player, and a number of other features: http://www.pandora.com/pandora_one.

If neither of these options works for you, I hope you’ll keep listening to the free version – 40 hours each month will go a long way, especially if you’re really careful about hitting pause when you’re not listening. We’ll be sure to let you know if you start getting close to the limit, and we’ve created a counter you can access to see how many hours you’ve already used each month.

We’ll be implementing this change starting this month (July), I’d welcome your feedback and suggestions. The combination of our usage patterns and the “per song per listener” royalty cost creates a financial reality that we can’t ignore…but we very much want you to continue listening for years to come.

Please don’t hesitate to email me back with your thoughts.

Sincerely,
Tim
Founder