Three young Canadian entrepreneurs have opened the world's first automated teller able to exchange bitcoins for currency.
The machine, delivered to Vancouver by Robocoin, an American manufacturer, stands against a wall of a popular coffee shop, and resembles an ordinary cash ATM. However, instead of cash transactions it swaps Canadian dollars for bitcoins, the virtual internet currency invented in 2008 by an anonymous computer scientist known only by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
Customers lined up to use the ATM, then used their smartphones to buy coffee and muffins at the Waves coffee shop.
The ATM is the world's first, said co-owner Mitchell Demeter, a local entrepreneur who started trading in bitcoins several years ago. This year, he set up Bitcoiniacs - a Vancouver storefront money exchange - with two partners. He and his friends, who were high school students together, said they saw ATMs as a business opportunity. "Nobody had an ATM, everyone was buying and selling on websites," said Demeter.
Customers use a private key - like a bank PIN - to access their online account of bitcoins on the ATM. They withdraw cash equivalents for their bitcoins, or deposit cash bills, which are then converted into bitcoins and deposited into a virtual account. The prevailing conversion rate is about one bitcoin for C$200 (HK$1,484). Users can then spend their bitcoins with a smartphone, in a similar way to how credit cards are used, or by transferring the money to purchase goods and services online. "It's the currency of the internet, as real as any other," said Demeter.
In Vancouver, bitcoins are accepted by some 15 local businesses, from coffee shops to a landscaping business.
One of the ATM's first customers was Mike Yeung, a business student at the city campus of Simon Fraser University, where he helped set up a university bitcoin club, one of a handful of such clubs in the world. The club's mission "is to educate people about bitcoin so they can adopt bitcoins in their everyday lives", he said.
"I think bitcoins are the wave of the future, because they provide maximum value and efficiency," said Yeung.
He gestured at the new machine in the coffee shop. "The ATM is a step forward."