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Video phones were one of those things we all thought would be amazing if they turned up in the 80s. The technology of the day -- analogue phone exchanges and rotary dial phones -- weren't quite up to the job though. In the 21st century, the idea's gone off the boil -- BT keeps trying to talk us into face-to-face services, but no one's buying it. Could a free solution take off? Panasonic thinks so. Its new TVs for 2010 can incorporate a webcam and Skype to provide free video calls on your plasma.

The system works with TVs that have the company's VieraCast Internet interface. People buying a 2010 model will have access to a full, video-capable Skype service. Video is encoded by the optional camera, so the TV doesn't have to do any of the processing -- a neat way of making sure the cost of the system is borne by those who actually want to use it. The camera also features four microphones, designed to pick-up sound from every member of the family.

Status updates from your contacts are shown on the specially designed, full-screen interface. You can place calls at the touch of a button and within a few seconds enjoy video from your friends and family delivered via the Internet at 22 frames per second.

Although the service will work best when it's used TV-to-TV, it's perfectly possible to call a laptop or other Skype device too. Calls are free on the Skype network, which is a massive boon too, especially with broadband being so cheap these days. BT is likely to be rather upset about this, but we can't help but think Panasonic is on to a winner here. And with Skype being a cross-platform service, perhaps other manufacturers will integrate it too.

To see the service in action, click 'Continue' and take a look at the following photos. As soon as we can get our hands on one of these TVs, we'll be sure to show you how well the system works.

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The sharp-looking camera -- essential to make Skype video calling possible -- has four built-in microphones to pick up sound from the whole family. The camera also encodes the video, which means the TV simply has to pass the stream to the Skype servers -- a good way of keeping the TV costs low.
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As you might expect, the user interface is designed for use on the TV. Sitting on a sofa you'd have no problem at all reading the status updates on-screen.
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When a call comes in, you're notified with a little logo, and the name of the caller. Handy if you're trying to avoid someone. We never liked Jane and Jenny anyway.
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