Bitcoin hopefuls stepping off the fringe at CES

Dollars go in, Bitcoins come out.

Bitcoin’s global buzz notwithstanding, virtual currencies are a niche commodity. Compared to even a minor national currency, the volume of economic activity that flows through these peer-to-peer media of exchange is infinitesimal. To move from the fringe to the mainstream, Bitcoin and its brethren have to be useful to and useable by ordinary consumers, not just geeks and cranky libertarians.

So it was with great pleasure that I toured the first “Bitcoin Pavilion” at CES this evening. Okay, only six companies registered, and of those only four actually showed up. And it was organised by Startup Debut at an offsite venue, not by the CES powers-that-be. But it’s the first step on the road to mass market usefulness.

Bit Angels is a club for investors betting on start ups that are playing in this early stage market. The group says it has 300 members worldwide who invested $7 million in 15 companies last year, all of them involved in Bitcoin or the infrastructure that supports it.

Lamassu is a New Hampshire based start up that makes Bitcoin ATMs. Feed dollar bills (or whatever local currency works in your part of the world) into it and it’ll send you Bitcoins. So far, they’ve shipped 15 ATMs to customers around the world, mostly in places like Canada, Australia and Finland, where regulators are less antagonistic than is typical in the U.S.

KryptoKit is a plug in for Chrome browsers that serves as a Bitcoin wallet – an application that stores the Bitcoins you own and lets you move them back and forth to other people’s wallets. Since it lives inside a browser, it’s easy to use it to buy stuff online.

BitcoinShop wants to sell you that stuff. Acting as a middleman between traditional retailers, like BestBuy, and a major Bitcoin exchange, BitcoinShop says it lists 120,000 items in 400 different categories. “We’re a Bitcoin Amazon”, said CEO Michal Handerhan, perhaps a bit optimistically.

Optimism isn’t a sin in Las Vegas, though. Despite government pushback, the heat behind Bitcoin’s rapid rise in value is coming from China, which also happens to be the new frontier for consumer electronics. This evening’s hopeful entrepreneurs and investors are talking to the right audience.