July 18--If you'd like to attend this weekend's North American Bitcoin Conference at McCormick Place, you can buy your entry pass for about 0.16 bitcoins. A two-night stay at a nearby hotel will set you back roughly 1 bitcoin, while a beef and cheddar empanada at one of the few Chicago restaurants to accept the digital currency will run 0.005 bitcoins.
And if your account gets a little low, you can replenish it by inserting cash into the convention's bitcoin ATM.
Such is the landscape that will greet the roughly 1,000 attendees expected for the conference, put on by Netherlands-based event producer Triple Zero Media. Virtual money is still in its infancy but acceptance is spreading, even though critics still view bitcoins as a sketchy and unreliable way to make transactions.
"The reason for putting on the conference is to push bitcoin from a speculative game to a mainstream currency," said Triple Zero Media's Moe Levin. "Once the government and banks are happy and comfortable, then we have the potential to unlock the future in a real way."
A bitcoin's value can fluctuate wildly -- it hovered around $620 Thursday, well off its December peak of about $1,200 -- and that volatility has contributed to criticism that bitcoins, which are not issued or backed by any government, are not a safe way to conduct business.
"So Bitcoin isn't a currency," prominent economist Nouriel Roubini tweeted earlier this year. "It is (between) a Ponzi game and a conduit for criminal/illegal activities. And it isn't safe given hacking of it."
But plenty of big companies now accept bitcoins, including travel agency Expedia and electronics vendor TigerDirect.com. They have caught on with a growing number of small businesses, too, such as the Cassava restaurant in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.
Owner Jorge Flores said that in the four months he has accepted bitcoins, they have come to account for 1 to 2 percent of his business. Transactions can be done quickly via smartphone, he said, and save him the 2 to 3 percent fee he would otherwise pay to credit card companies.
"It's just fun," he said. "It's a fascinating technology, a fantastic innovation."
Venture capitalist Ezra Galston of Chicago Ventures is scheduled to speak at the conference, which starts Saturday, about how Chicago's digital infrastructure, legacy of trading and proximity to Fortune 500 companies position it to capitalize on electronic currency.
He said he understood the knocks on bitcoins, but maintained that the same criticisms could apply to every currency system in the world.
"With bitcoins you have a purely market driven currency, and in many senses I find that very beautiful," he said.
(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune
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Original headline: Bitcoin conference comes to Chicago
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