Test-driving Boston's Bitcoin ATM

The world's first public Bitcoin ATM popped up in Boston's South Station yesterday. I tried it out.

Bitcoin has been the internet’s darling of the past year, regularly skyrocketing and plummeting in value and busting out of the tech media to grab mainstream news headlines. Few people, relatively speaking, know that much about it, and most who have heard about it know only that it’s a digital currency that only lives online.

That’s not necessarily true anymore. Yesterday, the country’s first public Bitcoin ATM popped up somewhat unexpectedly in Boston’s South Station. After all this time hearing about this potentially transformative, potentially risky new technology living on the internet, it had materialized in the real world, right in my back yard. So I had to take a look.

The LibertyTeller in South Station isn’t necessarily easy to find. I hadn’t noticed as much before, but South Station is over-run with self-service machines: subway ticketing machines, Amtrak ticketing machines, cash ATMs, even lottery ticket-dispensing machines. The LibertyTeller, by comparison, is roughly a third of the size of a cash ATM, and for now it sits on a table by the rear end of South Station, near the automatic doors leading to the Track 6 platform. I’m not sure if I would have even noticed it had I not been looking for it. Even so, I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to find it had I not spotted the two employees wearing LibertyTeller t-shirts. (To be fair, they provide some pretty good directions on their website, but I wanted to try to find it organically).

These two young men happened to be LibertyTeller's co-fonders Chris Yim and Kyle Powers. They said "hundreds" of people have dropped in to try the LibertyTeller since they brought it to South Station yesterday. Of course, this reception is the result of a bustling Bitcoin community, undoubtedly thrilled to see a cash-for-Bitcoin machine operating in public. Some even came from New York and New Hampshire just to try it out.

The machine, however, is not designed for Bitcoin experts. You don’t even need a digital Bitcoin wallet to use it (although the LibertyTeller supports the mobile apps). Small, paper “wallets” sat to the side of the machine, each showing two unique QR codes and a Bitcoin address. The paper is even folded and adorned with a small sticker to present only the QR code marked “Load and Verify.” Unfolding and removing the sticker reveals the “Spend” QR code, which I can imagine is the one you scan when you want to spend your Bitcoin. That was a smart move for a company preparing for long lines, should they develop. The uninitiated can’t try to scan the wrong QR code if they can only find the right one.

From there, it’s a really easy process. Press the start button, scan the QR code, then insert the cash. If you don’t believe me, here’s a Vine.

After that, the machine shows a verification screen asking the user to send the Bitcoins to the user’s online account, whose address is printed on the same card as the QR codes.

image alt text

And look – it’s even polite enough to thank me.

image alt text

Overall, I’d say I was impressed. Perhaps the smartest move was converting the price to mBTC, or one-thousandth of a Bitcoin. Showing the amount in small decimal amounts of a single Bitcoin would turn a lot of people off. Being able to show it in the same format in which we count money translates easily to new users.

Bitcoin has had a rough month, in both value and publicity. But the LibertyTeller is a sign that it’s pushing through. Expect more of these, and don’t be surprised to see Bitcoin continue to creep out of the internet and into your daily routine.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Must read: 10 new UI features coming to Windows 10