That's the only way I can summarize my visit to one of America's first bitcoin ATM machines, at HandleBar in Austin, TX.
Bitcoin is gaining global popularity. Society seems to be intrigued by the possibility of a non-fiat currency circumventing fee-based middlemen like credit card companies and banks (helpful services like consumer / fraud protection notwithstanding). The currency is still in its infancy and is somewhat immature--as is evident by the recent Mt. Gox implosion and debates regarding the currency's deflationary aspects--but an extrapolation of bitcoin's brief history shows resiliency from similar crises. Efforts from Robocoin and other companies pushing to increase adoption may be the only way bitcoin will stabilize, but time will tell whether this is a speculative bubble or a viable way to exchange money.
To use Robocoin's ATM, they require submission of an "application" with several, highly personal details:
- Phone number
- A scan of your hand
- A government-issued ID (e.g. driver's license)
Part of bBitcoin's allure is virtual anonymity. The currency can be tracked to a certain degree by following blockchain transfers, but bitcoin can be moved anonymously by taking precautions. Fiat money doesn't require any identification at its most basic level, so the concept of submitting your entire identity to some non-financial institution just to convert USD and bitcoin seemed highly grating. Strike 1.
My curiosity got the best of me and I submitted my application anyway. The claimed wait time was five minutes. 20 minutes later, I had no answer, so I left. Strike 2.
15 minutes later I received a text saying my application had been approved and I was ready to deposit and withdraw bitcoin. Since I already made the mistake of submitting my entire identity to some random company I decided to return and give the ATM another shot.
Upon logging into the ATM (during the application I was asked to create a PIN that's attached to my phone number) I was told to scan the QR code of my phone's bitcoin wallet. The video demonstrating how to do this showed some scanner that didn't exist on this ATM. I saw one red light that looked like it might have been a scanner, but all of my efforts to scan my phone were useless. Strike 3.
This whole process was already a strikeout, but I persisted. The ATM provided a way to generate a wallet for purchased bitcoins, so I selected this option. Finally, the ATM asked me to deposit cash and it displayed a current bitcoin price of $619.
Yes, as of 9PM on February 20th, 2014, the Robocoin price was nearly 13% higher than Coinbase and Bitstamp (two of the largest bitcoin exchanges). No. Thank. You.
What do we do now?
Robocoin's goal seems to be increasing bitcoin availability for the masses, but a 13% markup is an outlandish tax on the uneducated. Is 13% the required markup to insulate Robocoin from bitcoin's volatility? Who knows.
To Robocoin: Make the product easier to use, with less personal information, and make prices more realistic.
To everybody else: hold out for a LibertyTeller ATM, purchase through one of the above-mentioned exchanges, or purchase locally from a trusted friend.