It’s the dawning of the tru2way era for consumers after Panasonic announced today that it will be selling tru2way-enabled TVs in select retail stores in Comcast’s Chicago and Denver markets.

The 42-inch and 50-inch Viera HDTVs, which come equipped with CableCards, have been shipped to Abt Electronics in Glenview, Ill., and will be available later this month at Ultimate Electronics and Circuit City stores in the Denver area. Since the TVs have the tru2way, two-way technology built into them, consumers who purchase the TVs will no longer need set-top boxes.

Tru2way has been fermenting on both the back and front burners of the cable industry for quite some time. Tru2way, which is now the consumer-orientated name for the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), was originally part of the broader OpenCable initiative that CableLabs launched in 1997 to promote the deployment of interactive services over cable. OCAP consists of a stack of middleware software that resides between applications and the operating system within a consumer electronics device, such as a set-top box or OCAP-compliant TV set.

While Time Warner Cable has done a limited trial with employees in New York in the past with tru2way-enabled Samsung TVs, Comcast and Panasonic are the first to get the technology in front of consumers in both retail and home environments.

“This is an important milestone for tru2way technology,” said Michael Paxton, a principal analyst for In-Stat’s Multimedia Group. “Most notably, it highlights how cooperation between the cable TV industry and the consumer electronics industry can improve next-generation digital product development.”

The 42-inch model, which is called the TH-42PZ80Q, costs $1,599.95, while the 52-inch TH-50PZ80Q sells for $2,995.95. Marc Cook, the general manager of an Abt store, said the tru2way TVs cost about $300 more than comparable sets without tru2way, but Comcast is providing consumers with incentives to pick up the new tru2way TV sets.

“Comcast is running a promotion with a $300 cash rebate, and if you bundle in digital voice or broadband services you can get a rebate of $450,” said Panasonic CTO Paul Liao.

So with the rebates from Comcast, the $300 increase for the tru2way plasma TVs is a wash, and Cook points out that there is also the short-term savings of not needing a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cable connection cord, and the long-term savings of not paying to rent a set-top box.

In addition to the tru2way technology, the TH-42PZ80Q and TH-50PZ80Q feature 480Hz “sub-field drive” for sharp motion image focus; 1,000,000:1 Dynamic Contrast Ratio; Viera Link; and a built-in SD Memory Card reader for playing back digital photos. Viera Link allows the consumer to operate all Viera Link-equipped components with a single remote. 

What can consumers expect?
Since the paint is still drying on the tru2way deployments, Mark Hess, Comcast’s senior vice president of video product development, said digital customers in Chicago and Denver will see tru2way in action through their guides and in the VOD platform.

“Right now we’re just focusing on the services we currently offer with the digital service,” Hess said. “Primarily that’s the interactive program guide and VOD. It does have a little different look and feel. It takes advantage of some of the graphic capabilities within the television so we do have kind of a sharper, nicer look to the guide, and there are different icons in there that are nice.

“Other than that, service should feel very, very similar to what they already have, or what their neighbors have if they haven’t signed up for digital before.”

Hess said Comcast has been getting the systems in Denver and Chicago ready for tru2way over the past 18 months.

“We’ve been doing technical trials for tru2way for quite some time now,” Hess said. “We kind of built this in stages by first getting the network ready and then iterating against some of the early software on some Panasonic set-top boxes, and then some Panasonic televisions.”

Hess said a key part of the process for readying the headends for tru2way was adding DOCSIS set-top gateways (DSG) for the signaling between the boxes and headends.

Both systems in Denver and Chicago use Motorola headends, but some Scientific Atlanta headends – as well as more Motorola headends – are slated to go live with tru2way next year.

“We’re going to be focusing on these two markets,  but I think there are 12 other markets that we have lined up to go live by July of ’09, and then by the end of the year I expect all of our markets will be tru2way capable,” Hess said. 

While Comcast doesn’t break out the number of digital subscribers in a market or division, Hess said there were significant numbers of digital subs in Chicago and Denver, which made those areas ideal for the first tru2way deployments.

Comcast, Panasonic and retail partners expect robust sales
Over the past few weeks, there have been reports in the media that HDTV sales could wane this year due to the economy, but Abt’s Cook said the previous two weekends have been the best of the year for HDTV sales.

While Liao noted that these are uncertain economic times for everyone, he’s still bullish on the prospect of the new tru2way TVs.

“The interesting thing is that TV has traditionally been something that has been relatively immune to these turndowns, largely because consumers tend to cocoon and they think more about how they’re going to improve their quality of life at home,” Liao said. “But this is an unusual time, so who knows what will happen. Naturally everyone is thinking about it, but in stores like Abt their sales are going strong.”

Abt’s Cook said Panasonic and Comcast went to great lengths to make sure his sales and technical support staff were provided with the proper training and information on the tru2way sets.

“It’s rare, in my experience, on any new product rollout that people have brainstormed to the level that [Comcast and Panasonic] have,” Cook said. “It was nice to have a rollout where people were thinking about retail and what our issues would be.”

Rolling out the tru2way TVs in October is vindication of sorts for Panasonic. Liao first spoke about the sets hitting retail stores during The Cable Show in May, and he said then that they would be ready by this fall. Over the summer, media reports surfaced that Panasonic had run into some issues with CableLabs’ certification process for the TVs, but the sets received certification from CableLabs several weeks ago.

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