Visiting The Bitcoin Bodega

Far from the glitz of the older Las Vegas strip, past a ragged Travelodge, and next to a smoke shop is a small bodega offering t-shirts, flip flops, and two 16-ounce bottles of suds for $5. It also has a Robocoin bitcoin ATM, the first on the Strip.

It is a high-tech obelisk, seemingly placed at random amidst a parade of drunk men and women on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. I visited it yesterday, cash in hand. It was my first bitcoin ATM experience and, despite the Ground-Control-To-Major-Tom oddity of the thing, I’ve come to understand the true power of this weird little ATM.

Robocoin has been busy of late. They’ve dropped their ATMs in over a dozen countries and they’ve done a wildly brisk business – their first ATM in Vancouver took in $1 million on its first day. They’re expanding their empire daily, but Vegas has always been a tough nut to crack. Run by a group of Las Vegas natives, the Robocoin guys have been eying the cavalcade of hotels and shops that is the Las Vegas Strip since they started. Now, after finding a foothold in downtown Vegas at the D Hotel, they’ve finally made it to the Miracle Mile.

How does the ATM work? To start you enter your phone number and a PIN. You receive a confirmation on your phone a few seconds later, enter the code into the machine, and prepare to be assimilated.

First you scan your palm using a Fujitsu IR palm vein scanner. This process requires three tries. Then you take a headshot using a built-in camera. Finally, you scan your photo ID and the system matches your image with the photo on the ID. Finally a partially automated system confirms you – a process that can take up to five minutes – and you’re ready to go. Once you’ve enrolled, you can use your phone number, palm, and PIN to buy and sell Bitcoin at any other Robocoin ATM.

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Jordan Kelley, Robocoin CEO, explained that they wanted to create a completely compliant and completely teller-less banking experience. They’ve succeeded. The ATM, while a bit clunky compared to the usual swipe-and-go strategy of standard bank ATMs, is secure and surprisingly quick. Besides, where else can you buy and sell bitcoin besides a raucous Satoshi Square meet-up at a local coffeehouse?

In short, the ATM is pretty handy. But why plop it down in the middle of a bodega? Kelley explained that in addition to 100,000 people walking by the location per day – an optimistic estimate this summer given the exposed, sun-scorched sidewalk that runs along that part of the Strip – there is ample parking. That’s right: people are starting to make pilgrimages to this out-of-the-way bodega, bringing crypto-hipsters in contact with guys with yard-long margarita glasses. It’s an interesting marriage.

Who will use this ATM? Well, if my ride from McCarran Airport to my hotel is any indication, there is a subset of Las Vegas that is looking to get lucky on bitcoin. My cab driver, a loquacious self-described nerd, told me about his past efforts at collecting bitcoin.

“I had 2,000 bitcoin back when it was $1,” he told me, wistfully. He sold them for about $2, but he’s still in the game, and when I told him there was a new ATM on the Strip he got excited. Finally, after a bit of driving, he turned off the meter before my destination.

“That’s my tip to you for telling me about the ATM, man,” he said. And he drove off into the hot desert afternoon.