This week, Panasonic will begin shipping high-definition televisions (HDTVs), next-generation TVs that are capable of displaying high-resolution digital television broadcasts.
The company announced its intentions in a statement warmly received by analysts, who think the electronics giant's entry could help inspire consumer confidence in the new technology.
Digital television is set to air for the first time this fall, when the top ten markets begin digital broadcasting. HDTVs, paired with a set-top box to decode the digital signal, will be capable of displaying pictures with roughly twice the clarity of current TVs.
Although HDTV owners will not be able to access digital signals until November, customers will immediately enjoy a much clearer picture with the new-fangled TVs, analysts say.
"You will see enhanced video, enhanced audio and display for movies, DVD titles. They have greater resolution and technical enhancements," said Gary Schultz, an entertainment analyst at Multimedia Research Group, who called HDTV "one of several standards encompassed by the DTV umbrella."
To get the full effect of high-resolution HDTV, the broadcast should be in the so-called 1080i format, though other broadcast formats may be able to approach 1080i in quality. It is not clear at this point how many of the major broadcasters will be supporting 1080i.
The 56-inch HDTV shipping this week also offers a "catch-up" feature which allows viewers to watch stored still images, with audio, until they catch up with the program in progress. The device further comes with a picture-in-picture feature which allows real split-screen viewing.
Panasonics's first 56-inch HDTV will retail for $5,999, the company said in a statement. Historically, HDTVs have cost well over $10,000.
Panasonic also has several other forthcoming digital TVs, including a $3,199.95 36-inch model and $1,799.95 32-inch model.
"Those products will probably encourage a lot of people to consider digital television," said Shultz, who noted that over 1 million big screen projection televisions were sold last year for between $3,500 and $4,500. "That market is probably going to be the first group that buys wide-screen, high-definition television."
Panasonic also announced a companion set-top digital signal decoder, due out in October, along with a combination digital and analog VCR.
Schultz, for one, believes that Pansonic's announcement today is just the catalyst the industry needs to begin the process of explaining and promoting a fairly confusing technology. "The big retail chains will be doing a lot to train their people, to make this simple and clear to the consumer," he said, as other major television manufacturers begin to announce their digital televisions. "The race has begun."