Officially kicking off in Las Vegas on January 6th, the annual Consumer Electronics Show provides a early glance at the latest technologies that, as NPR's Laura Sydell put it, "most of us can only dream of owning." Gadgets and technologies unveiled this year include new tablet competitors to be launched by Motorola, Toshiba and "basically everyone" but Apple; 3D TV technologies; and 4G wireless technology. Keynote speakers for the event include Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer, Samsung President Boo-Keun Yoon, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and others. As tech reporters eagerly prepare to ship off to Sin City to cover CES, here's a few of the items that are piquing their interest:

  • It's a Good Indicator of 'Economic Outlook Worldwide,' writes Michael V. Copeland at Fortune, justifying the importance of CES to those who aren't industry observers. And the early word? "Based on the unscientific measure of lavish parties being staged and sold-out hotel rooms, the almost $700 billion global consumer electronics industry is feeling good about its chances for growth in 2011, predicted to be north of 4%," Copeland finds. While the show's attendance isn't expected to reach record numbers, "this year's CES will feature around 2,500 companies, launching 20,000 new products, and displaying them across 1.6 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, an increase of more than 10% compared to last year's CES."
  • Those 3D TVs and Glasses  The Hollywood Reporter's Carolyn Giardina dishes on the highs ("growing selection of 3D-ready technologies are now on the market") and lows (3D glasses may not work across different brands of TV sets) of the growing number of 3D ready technologies on the market. Giardina asks, "But why use glasses at all?" Here's what the near future could look like:
Industry veteran Peter Fannon, Panasonic's vp technology policy, suggests that glasses-free 3D could soon come in the form of handheld devices and digital signage--though not yet 3D TVs."Most manufacturers would say a real no-glasses 3D experience on a large TV is many years away," he said. "We can demo how it could work. But it isn't comfortable or an acceptable situation. It requires [viewers] to sit perfect still [and at a single angle]."
  • What Steve Ballmer May Talk About In the Keynote Address  Alex Wilhelm at The Next Web takes a stab at guessing what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will say in his keynote address at the event on Wednesday night. Verizon and Sprint Windows 7 handsets, Windows Phone 7 sales numbers, a new Zune HD, even new Windows 8 material are all possible material for the speech, Wilhelm figures: "Time will tell, right? The keynote is at 6:30 on Wednesday. Get ready."
  • Quirky Things and 'Dark Horses'  NPR's Laura Sydell and Fox News' John R. Quain each peppered their previews with some of the quirkier or less notable items featured in this years CES. Catching Sydell's eye was the Misa Digital Guitar ("a stringless guitar that has virtual strings and touch technology") and the WheeMe ("a robot that does massage. I don't know about this one. Human hands just seem so much warmer"). Quain singled out mobile TV ("television broadcasts that can be received on a mobile phone could become a more widespread phenomena this year") and in-car services ("Audi, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and OnStar will be among the auto companies pushing such new tech") as his "dark horses" of the event.
  • Connected TV (i.e. 'Huge iPads on the Wall')  Seattle Times' Brier Dudley writes that--although tablets get more attention--"far more TVs will be sold in 2011 ... maybe we should think of them as huge iPads hanging on the wall." Microsoft is looking to make a big splash in this market to compete with Google TV (which is having a a few setbacks). It plans on rolling out a "stripped-down version of Windows tailored for set-top boxes" that plan to cost around $200 dollars when they retail later this year. "They'll pose a serious challenge to the new Apple and Google TV devices," observed Dudley. "The Windows boxes have a polished and familiar TV-program guide that makes it easy to blend and navigate both online and broadcast content."
  • The Green Guide  In an assessment of the greener aspects of the event, Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech (via Reuters), notes the energy-efficient gadgets, panel on the connected electric vehicle, wireless technology (like Energizer's inductive charger) and other items of particular note to eco-conscious techies. And how green is the show itself? "CES says it has cut its print production over the past five years by nearly 50 percent," Fehrenbacher writes. "At the same time, the researchers at Interactive Media Strategies point out that 'The only real green alternative is a virtual event on your computer, not a traditional in-person event in a convention center.'"
  • Why Doesn't the Event Invite Actual Consumers? Time's Harry McCracken (who also wrote a noteworthy glance back at the 1971 CES event) observes a curious occurence about the "consumer" event: "despite the name, you won't find any consumers there." Regular consumers are "barred from entry" for an event that's mainly for "employees of manufacturers, retailers and other outfits in the electronics trade, along with professional industry watchers." It's too bad, he writes, "I suspect that the show would provide a far more accurate vision of personal technology's future if it let in the people who are supposed to buy the 20,000 products that will be announced, encouraging them to poke, prod and provide their unvarnished opinions."