ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It smells like cigars in here, which makes sense because I'm in a cigar bar called Imbibe in the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque. I'm not here for rye whiskey or a smoke, though. I'm here to buy some bitcoin.
The Lamassu bitcoin kiosk sits prominently on a counter, not far from the door. It's being promoted as the first publicly available US bitcoin vending machine. If it's not the first, it's definitely one of the first. Eric Stromberg, owner of Enchanted Bitcoins, the kiosk operator, stands beside it with an Asus Netbook at the ready.
Stromberg originally wanted to launch the $5,000 machine in San Francisco, but the regulatory tangle was daunting, so he chose New Mexico instead. "New Mexico was one of the few states with friendlier regulations," he said. For federal compliance reasons that Stromberg calls complicated but doesn't detail further, he takes down my name, address, and phone number in his Netbook before I can use the machine. He said he has to monitor users of the ATM for "suspicious activity."
I pull out my trusty old Droid X and open my Bitcoin Wallet app. It displays a QR code connected to my virtual wallet. I scan it up next to a clear window on the machine. The device sucks in my $20 bill and the transaction goes through.
A few seconds later, the wallet on my phone updates and I've gone from a balance of 0 bitcoin to 27.90 millibitcoin (millitbitcoin, the default measurement unit for my digital wallet, represents thousandths of a bitcoin; it's easier to read than tiny fractions). It was all immensely painless.
The Lamassu machine -- which is mounted on a metal plate for security and looks a bit like an overgrown classic all-in-one Mac -- doesn't actually give money back. It only changes cash into bitcoin. Stromberg had considered other machines, but settled on this one because his focus is on "making bitcoin easy to get." He actually installed the machine and had it running more than a week ago. "Essentially no one noticed," he says.
People are noticing now. I had to wait while two local guys bought some bitcoin using special paper bitcoin "wallets" with QR codes before I had my chance at the kiosk. This kind of wallet allows anyone to just walk up and get bitcoin without having a virtual wallet already.
Right now, the machine needs to be attended by a person to fill in the compliance records, so it's not as simple a process as using a regular ATM.
Navigating uncharted waters
Stromberg hopes the bitcoin kiosk concept will catch on. "I'm stepping into uncharted waters here, both in the US and in Albuquerque," he says. If it proves popular, he plans to install more machines in the city. He also hasn't given up on the idea of launching a machine in California. He is still settling on the transaction fees, but his take will be about 7 percent.
Robocoin, another maker of bitcoin ATMs, is expected to roll out its own devices later this month. This could be the start of a minor Bitcoin revolution, connecting people to the cryptocurrency who previously hadn't considered it.
The Enchanted Bitcoins kiosk was my very first bitcoin experience, though I've been bitcoin-curious ever since I heard I could buy a mansion with the currency. It did feel kind of awesome to plug cold hard cash into a machine and have it appear in virtual form on my smartphone with a jingly little alert. After transaction fees and fluctuations in bitcoin value, my original $20 is currently worth $17.45. Now, I just have to decide where to go spend it.