The controversial digital currency Bitcoin has a display at CES. It's a good-sized booth, featuring a giant picture of a smiling woman holding an iPhone running a Bitcoin app. Crystal Campbell, a waitress who works at an Orlando restaurant that accepts Bitcoin, greets curious conference-goers with a friendly but not overeager smile. "It's basically like the cash of the internet," she explained to a tall brunette who had heard of Bitcoin, but wasn't sure exactly what it was.
It was a surprisingly professional setup, considering that Bitcoin is a decentralized payments system with a robust but fragmented community. The $13,000 booth was paid for by Butterfly Labs, which makes the hardware used to create Bitcoins, and Bitpay, a startup that helps merchants accept the currency. Bitpay just raised $510,000 in funding from notable investors including Barry Silbert and Jimmy Furland of SecondMarket, Shakil Khan of Path and Spotify, and Roger Ver, an e-currency enthusiast who contributed his share of the round in Bitcoins.
This is all strange new territory for Bitcoin
About half the people who stopped by were already familiar with Bitcoin, Bitpay CEO Tony Gallippi told The Verge. He was optimistic about all the investors, merchants, and Bitcoin users who had hit up the booth. There were two Bitcoin-related booths at CES last year, but they were smaller and stuffed into corners. This year's placement, across from an audio company and a startup showing off night vision goggles, was much more ideal. The team has been too busy schmoozing to try the night vision goggles.
This is all strange new territory for Bitcoin. Because it isn't tied to any central authority, it's become popular among a certain set of technolibertarians. (the Porcupine Freedom Festival in New Hampshire, a libertarian retreat where neither the police nor the US dollar are welcome, is the kind of place where Bitcoin finds its fans.) It's a bit weird to see the currency represented at the same corporate trade show where the world's largest electronics makers announce their latest TVs.
Employees from a music label came by out of curiosity; apparently their site had been hacked and the hijackers were demanding Bitcoins "and we thought we'd stop by and see what this technology is all about." Representatives from Bain Capital also chatted with the Bitcoiners for a while.
This was good publicity for the currency, which has been associated with the online black market. Bitcoin first entered mainstream consciousness in a Gawker article about the black market website Silk Road titled "The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable." Senator Chuck Schumer called for an investigation into the subversive coin. The mainstream media became fascinated with the currency, fueling a speculative bubble that drove the price of a single Bitcoin up over $30. Then a prominent Bitcoin "wallet" that was storing lots of people's Bitcoins disappeared suddenly, along with the deposits, sending the price back down (it's now around $14).
These are just a few of the hijinks the fledgling economy has seen in its three short years, but Bitcoin has been cleaning up lately. The Bitcoin Foundation has launched an effort to coordinate public relations, a few startups such as Bitpay have raised serious cash, and respectable web companies like Wordpress announced they would start taking payments in Bitcoin.
Representatives from Bain Capital also chatted with the Bitcoiners for a while
Bryan Micon, a Las Vegas native and prominent user in the online Bitcoin scene, suddenly appeared wearing a homemade badge with a picture of his face on it. One of the Bitcoin booth reps, who asked that he be identified by his forum name "tuxavant," started talking about the Bitcoin scene in Las Vegas. Tuxavant wants to start a business catering to Bitcoin users who vacation in Vegas. "I want to get helicopter tours," he said.
"I can get bottle service for Bitcoin if you want," Micon said.
"I do want that," Tuxavant said.
Just then, a security guard materialized and asked to see Micon's badge. "Sure," he said, holding up his fake. "I'm with BryanMicon.com. Not supposed to be here." "Let's go," the guard said, touching his elbow and guiding him out of the ballroom as Micon grinned over his shoulder at us.
Tuxavant showed The Verge a YouTube video for "Love you like a Bitcoin," a riff on the Selena Gomez song that he made with his 11-year-old daughter. "I, I like my Bitcoins not so shady, so, so, send me one more Bitcoin maybe," the lyrics go. "She gets her allowance in Bitcoins," Tuxavant said.
Just then local Bitcoin miner Fon Duke walked up, also sans badge, to meet up with the crew as the show started to shut down. "I hate CES," he said. "I miss Comdex."