Heard the term “blockchain,” but don't know what it means? This app is helping, using cartoon cats

Heard the term “blockchain,” but don't know what it means? This app is helping, using cartoon cats

There’s something about cats and the internet. Felines are leading the way to making the complicated technology of blockchain a bit more user-friendly.

CryptoKitties, a game in which one can buy, trade or breed cartoon cats, crept its way into the hearts of attendees at a Canadian hackathon in October. The game launched publicly on Thanksgiving, and players have since spent an estimated $21 million buying or breeding to get a genetically unique kitty based on “cattributes,” which are traits such as special colors, patterns, googly eyes, no necks, duck wings and other crazy stuff. The game became so popular, it clogged up the network in December, when it was taking as long as 20 hours to buy a cat instead of seconds.

“It was unexpected. We wanted it to be successful, but we didn’t see it growing that quickly. We had a six-month plan,” said Arthur Camara, CryptoKitties’ co-founder and head of product and engineering. “That happened in three weeks.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make blockchain mainstream. But developers will have another go this weekend at EthDenver, expected to be the world’s largest hackathon for the alternative-to-bitcoin Ethereum technology — about 1,300 are attending and 600 are on the waitlist. The team at CryptoKitties, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, will be there as well as key people, including Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin and Erik Voorhees, an early employee of one of the first bitcoin exchanges who has since started a faster coin exchange called ShapeShift.io. Many say the growing interest is due to the cat game.

“(CryptoKitties) was their gateway drug into all of this,” said Kent Barton, who has three digital cats and organizes the Ethereum Denver Meetup. “But pretty much to a t, (members) are interested in the potential of the technology to change a lot of different things.”

The ability to buy, sell and trade in an online world that keeps the process anonymous and trustworthy is what blockchain is all about. In CryptoKitties, each cat is unique and there’s proof of authenticity because the decentralized network of computers will vouch for its lineage. The cat can’t be altered and is a user’s forever — until it’s sold.

Now, swap cats out for contracts — say, a house’s ownership deed, personal medical records, a voter’s vote — and you’ll understand why Ethereum was created. Its popularity grew last year because it goes beyond trading bitcoins, although Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency: ether. It can be used to run apps, such as CryptoKitties, or share documents. The financial world has taken notice.

“The technology is going to be highly disruptive and impact a broad range of industry sectors and create great opportunity and economic value,” said David Gold, a managing director at Access Venture Partners and a sponsor of the event. “This (hackathon) is about hackers coming together and creating a novel business idea leveraging the blockchain infrastructure and coming up with new businesses.”

Ethereum was dreamed up in 2013 by Vitalik Buterin, a then-19-year-old programmer from Toronto. He wanted to use the blockchain for more than just financial transactions. Ethereum has since become the second-most popular blockchain, handling twice the volume of other competitors and using less electricity, said Joe Lubin, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who, along with Buterin, helped develop Ethereum.

“It’s getting quite busy,” said Lubin, who started New York-based ConsenSys to develop Ethereum apps such as Grid+, which uses the network to manage a user’s electricity needs. “Scalability is a concern for every technology. Software developers are always maxing out resources so it’s great news when the Ethereum network has attracted enough interest to have resource issues.”

Lubin said Ethereum must be able to process as many transactions as users send it without slowing the network. Bitcoin, for example, processes anywhere from two to seven transactions per second. Ethereum is at around 25, Lubin said. Visa processes 24,000 per second.

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