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Originally published January 3, 2010 at 11:03 PM | Page modified January 4, 2010 at 9:45 AM

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It's time for new gadgets at CES in Las Vegas

More than 20,000 new products will be shown by 2,500 companies at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas starting Thursday.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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Las Vegas always seems like it's in another dimension, but this week it will be even more so when the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show takes place.

More than 20,000 new products will be shown by 2,500 companies starting Thursday.

They're expecting to sell $166 billion worth of TVs, phones, stereos and other gadgets in the U.S. alone next year.

You'd never guess the economy's limping and millions are out of work.

But gadgets are the new religion, objects of worship promising a better future, and the annual CES extravaganza is Mecca.

"I am more excited about this upcoming show than any one in 30 years," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association that hosts the show.

Shapiro said it's been a tough year-and-a-half for the industry, but innovation and products surfacing at the show may help the economy recover.

Attendance will be down about 15 percent, but there will still be 110,000 people at the show, including 43,000 retail buyers looking for products to sell in 2010.

Yet not everything electronic makes it to Vegas. Google declined to participate and is expected to announce a new phone at its Silicon Valley headquarters on Tuesday, and Apple's expected to announce its new handheld computing device a few weeks later in San Francisco.

Among the companies exhibiting at CES are more than 45 from the Northwest, ranging from Microsoft to Kirkland traffic data startup Inrix.

Behind the scenes, deals will be made between media, tech and electronics companies jockeying for a bigger share of the digital-entertainment business. Shapiro said a record 32,000 chief executives and other "c-level" executives will attend this year.

Maybe the bosses are just shopping for cool new toys.

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Here are some of the big products and stories I'm expecting to come out of CES this week:

• 3D televisions and video players will make the biggest splash. After trickling out for years, 3D televisions will be mass produced this year by companies such as LG.

Hollywood's pushing things along by producing 3D versions of its major films, and the industry has agreed on a standard for discs that play movies in both 3D and high-def Blu-ray formats, avoiding another format war.

Expect to see new combo players that Blu-ray, 3D and standard DVDs. Hopefully they won't charge extra for the 3D glasses.

Amazon.com's Kindle may seem quaint after this week.

Dozens of new electronic-book readers will be shown at CES, including new models with color displays, touchscreens and backlights. Manufacturers range from unknown Asian factories to heavily financed startups such as Plastic Logic, which is introducing its color "Que" e-book reader Thursday.

As Shapiro put it, the markets for large-screen devices like TVs and small-screen devices like phones are established. Now the sweet spot is in the middle: electronic book readers, tablets and other book-sized wireless, computer-like devices.

"There's a lot of action right there; there's jockeying for position," he said.

• Automotive computers and services, perhaps including broadband to the car, will be highlights.

Expect to hear about new capabilities added to Microsoft's auto platform that's used by car companies such as Ford. Keynote speakers include Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally (the former Boeing Commerical Airplanes boss).

Ballmer's also making an appearance with another former Seattleite: Sprint boss Dan Hesse, whose company is providing mobile broadband to Microsoft-equipped Fords.

• Lots of new mobile-TV receivers will be on display, including systems for receiving digital TV in cars and mobile phones that receive over-the-air digital TV broadcasts. They're not yet 3D.

• Microsoft's "Project Natal" motion controller for the Xbox 360 is likely to be one of the belles of the ball, especially if Ballmer reveals pricing and launch details — and demonstrates the system on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton. Sony's also likely to provide more details about its new motion-tracking input system for the PlayStation 3.

• Google's new phone won't distract too much from all the handsets expected to debut at CES. LG, Samsung, Motorola and Palm are expected to introduce new smartphones at the show, and Microsoft may (finally) show off Windows Mobile 7 devices.

• Best of all may be the wacky gadgets surfacing at the show, such as the Orb ring that vibrates and displays caller ID and messages from a wearer's phone and twists into a Bluetooth earpiece. Another contender is Jedi Mind's "thought controlled" game software, which uses a wireless headset to pick up brain activitiy.

Jedi's release said it "can detect emotions, expressions and cognitive thought processes which are then sent to the game and portrayed on the screen."

Can't wait to see that one.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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