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The space and time variations of the light emission in a macroscopic plasma display panel (PDP) discharge cell have been studied with an image-intensified charge-coupled device. The discharge cell is similar to a real PDP cell with a coplanar electrode configuration. The cell dimensions are on the order of 100 times larger than those of a real PDP cell and the operating pressure is about 100 times smaller. Different xenon–neon gas mixtures have been investigated. Optical filters have been used to measure infrared emission from xenon excited states 823.1 and 828.0 nm, and visible emission from neon at 640.2 nm. The measurements show that the neon visible emission occurs only above the cathode while xenon infrared emission occurs above both cathode and anode. Standing striations can be observed above the anode. The strong xenon emission above anode indicates that this region is more efficient than the cathode region in terms of ultraviolet production. The measurements are in excellent qualitative agreement with similar measurements performed in real PDP cells. However the velocity of plasma spreading above the cathode in the macrocell is significantly larger than in a real PDP cell. The interpretation of this discrepancy is given in a companion paper (part II) [J. Appl. Phys. 91, 1000 (2002)] where the experimental results are compared with results from a fluid model of the plasma. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.