Bitcoin ATMs (Source: Coin ATM Radar)
If you're like most of us, you've heard of Bitcoin but may be a bit hazy about just what it is and where you might get some.

Well, what it is isn't easily explained but it's basically what's called cryptocurrency -- virtual money generated, distributed and stored completely outside government channels.

The non-digerati among us have been a bit slow to pick up on the whole virtual currency idea but it's about to get a little bit easier, as Bitcoin ATMs begin to appear here and there.

Unlike your typical ATM, these machines will take your cash but they won't dispense $40 from your checking account to cover your cabfare home. Instead, you insert your cash and the machine generates your digital currency at the current exchange rate, which changes constantly.

The thing that's a little hard to grasp with digital currency is that you can't physically grasp it. It exists -- if you will -- in the cloud. It's a notch or two above an idea or a dream but it's not anything you can put in your pocket.

Heavy lifting

What is "is" -- if it is anything at all -- is a "key," a highly secure series of digits that are generated when your purchase is processed. The ATM machine does the heavy lifting for you and records the purchase in your account.

Frankly, the odds are this information won't be of much use to you just yet, since there are only 204 Bitcoin ATMs operating worldwide -- 38 in North America -- at the moment, according to Coin ATM Radar, which keeps track of such things. So it's not as though one is coming to your neighborhood 7-11 anytime soon.

This isn't bad news for the average consumer, as there is really no compelling reason to begin adopting virtual currency just yet. It comes in handy for criminals, of course, but then so does cash.

If you're feeling adventurous, keep in mind that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren't backed by any government, which may or may not be a good thing. Also, the exchanges that generate and store Bitcoin currency aren't insured by anything resembling the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, so there is a bit of risk inherent in the whole affair.

On the other hand, only a certain number of Bitcoins will ever be generated so -- just like gold and other physical commodities -- they should increase in value over time.

How much time is anyone's guess and will be the subject of future stories. 

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