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Back to the gadget mecca: What CES 2013 will bring

David Friedman / NBC News

It's January, which means it's time for the Consumer Electronics Show — that Super Bowl of gadgets better known by its initials, CES. As usual, the festivities are taking place in Las Vegas and NBC News will be there, bringing you the latest innovative, mesmerizing, and just plain crazy new gear.

Joe Turner, an IT professional from Merrimack, N.H., watches LG's 3-D television display at CES 2012. Calling himself aDavid Friedman / NBC News

Year after year, we've braved the event, wearing out shoes, losing sleep, swallowing vitamins by the fist-full to avoid that communal cold that's not-so-affectionately dubbed the "CES Plague." So why do we keep going back? Because the trip to the desert always leaves us with an idea of where the tech world is headed.

With over 1.9 million square feet of exhibitor space filled by over 3,300 exhibitors — not to mention over 150,000 wide-eyed attendees from all over the world — CES 2013 is the "biggest innovation event in the world," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs the show.

In addition to the thousands of "smart" TVs and touchscreen tablets that will compete for dominance, this year will bring many wild firsts:

  • A robot that clings to windows as it cleans them
  • A chair with built-in "zone of silence" noise cancellation 
  • A digital hearth that doubles as cooking surface and social fireplace
  • An iPhone case that makes the whole surface of the phone touch-sensitive

We'll be on the lookout for new 3-D screens that don't require glasses, never-before-seen gesture-recognition interfaces, gadgets that save energy and the environment, and all sorts of crazy remotes and smartphone accessories. I've personally got my heart set on testing every rugged product or protective iPhone case I can find — in search of a weakness. I also want to take a look at the long-awaited Pebble smartwatch with its e-ink screen, and see just how strong the next version of Corning's Gorilla Glass really is.

"Your mind can't possibly process everything that happens at CES," Shapiro told me, during a phone interview. 

A man looks over the collection of laptops running the Windows operating system at the Microsoft booth at CES 2012. Microsoft will not be exhibiting products this year.Rick Wilking / Reuters

That doesn't mean that every major company is represented though. Those currently at the tippy top of the technology mountain, including Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, don't have massive, colorful booths, and even Microsoft, which dominated the conference for over a decade, won't have a significant presence this year.

"I certainly invited Steve Jobs every year and I'll certainly invite Tim Cook every year," Shapiro told me, before reiterating that those companies do take part in some way, be it Google partnering with the CEA to promote the use of Google+, Amazon having meeting rooms set up during the event, or even Apple employees lurking on the show floor. "They're all there. I'd be more upset if they weren't there."

One country in particular is going to take a prominent role in CES this year. Already the center for tech manufacturing, the Chinese tech industry is stepping out from the shadows of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to promote its own brands, including Huawei, Hisense, and ZTE. "They have an innovation plan, it's very specific," Shapiro said. "They want to be the world leader in innovation."

It remains to be seen whether these companies can shine at an almost unnaturally star-studded series of events — Tim Tebow, Will.I.Am., Ke$ha, Alicia Keys, Snooki, Danny DeVito, 50 Cent and even former U.S. president Bill Clinton are among the luminaries booked to make appearances.

Samsung's presence at CES 2012 included an eye-catching sculpture of displays.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

"This is the best [year] ever," Shapiro told me. "Not every year is the best ever. 2009 was 'Let's just survive.' We were down 25 percent by almost every measure and I remember also the one after 9/11, the 2002 event, was 'Let's just survive.' And so there were two that were not 'the best ever,' that I can recall very specifically saying, 'We just have to get through this and put a good face on and do what we can.'"

But 2013 is the best year ever, he repeats again and again throughout our conversation. We hope so, Mr. Shapiro. We hope so.

Keep your eyes glued to for our coverage of CES 2013. Tech & Science editor Wilson Rothman, writers Rosa Golijan and Devin Coldewey, and video producer Matt Rivera will bring you plenty of videos, photos and stories live from the event while our mission control back at the office brings additional stories and analysis.

Want more tech news or interesting links? You'll get plenty of both if you keep up with Rosa Golijan, the writer of this post, by following her on Twitter, subscribing to her Facebook posts, or circling her on Google+.