Unless you're one of its many evangelists, you probably still don't own any Bitcoins, the math-based digital currency that's all the rage among hackers, free market libertarians, and crypto-anarchists alike. A group of tinkerers at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas is trying to fix that with a suitcase vending machine that eats your old-fashioned metal coins and spits out digital ones.
"Most people know about Bitcoin, but they don't have it."
Friday evening, a hacker called Garbage was milling around outside of the Rio convention center showing off the invention to fellow Bitcoin enthusiasts. "Most people know about Bitcoin, but they don't have it," he said, hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan with his group TwoSixNine, which built the device for around $250 using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer and a portable 4G modem. Plugged into a wall outside the hacker convention, it takes in your spare change through a metal coin slot, checks the current exchange rate on Bitcoin trading post Mt. Gox, and prints out a QR code on receipt paper, which contains the cryptographic hash you can use to redeem your digital gold nugget.
At the current exchange rate, a spare quarter only netted 0.00204327 BTC — or 204,327 "satoshis," as the smallest unit of the currency is known. But unlike similar projects like the Bitcoin ATM, the suitcase is meant as a way to introduce newcomers to the currency in a clever and non-committal way.
To cover the hardware costs, Garbage and his crew are taking 15 percent of all the case's transactions at the conference. "So far we've made back about $17," he shrugs, admitting that breaking even would be just a bonus. They built the case a week before Def Con in preparation for Thursday night's "LOL Bitcoin" party, which required its attendees to solve a crypto puzzle and send small Bitcoin donations to a designated address.
Bitcoin has suffered a number of setbacks, but its influence seems to be steadily growing. More web services and physical shops have begun accepting it, and various cities now host "Satoshi Squares" — meeting spots in public parks where Bitcoin fans congregate to trade and talk shop. TwoSixNine's suitcase looks to expand that reach by offering the curious a chance to buy a small stake in the Bitcoin world.
Update: Sooner or later, you might be able to buy a Bitcoin Briefcase yourself.