Bonnie Cha

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Former Palm Employees Cook Up Kitchen-Centric Kickstarter Project

They say inspiration can strike at any time. And for some, that time is when you’re about to change your baby’s diaper.

One night late last year, Rob Katcher, a former product manager at Palm who worked on such devices as the Treo 700p and Centro, was getting ready to put his youngest child to bed when he and his wife realized they were out of sleep diapers. A simple case of forgetting to pick some up at the store, but also the last thing they wanted to deal with at the end of the day.

Hiku founder Rob Katcher

They settled on using swim diapers for the night, which didn’t end well. But from that experience, a business idea was born.

Today, Katcher is launching a new product called Hiku on Kickstarter. Designed to simplify the shopping experience, it consists of a small disc that contains a commercial-grade scanner, a microphone and Wi-Fi radio, so that whenever you see you’re running low on an item, you just scan the barcode on the package or record a voice memo, and it is automatically added to your digital shopping list on the Hiku mobile app or Web.

But why use Hiku, when you can just make a list on your phone or use one of the grocery shopping list apps already on the market today?

“From the earliest days of Hiku, we set out to make a product that was instant, so it would satisfy the demands of a busy family,” said Katcher in an exclusive interview with AllThingsD. “One that’s as fast as — if not faster than — pen and paper. You simply cannot do that with a mobile app alone.”

I got a chance to check out an early working model of the product, and I see several benefits to Hiku. First, because it contains a commercial-grade scanner, it’s quicker to scan bar codes. With the mobile apps, you need to use your smartphone’s camera, and they can be slow to focus and recognize bar codes.

Also, it’s dead simple. It connects via Wi-Fi, and there’s only one button on the device, so you really can’t mess that up. Just press the button to scan an item or record a voice memo, and all the data is wirelessly sent to your phone.

Katcher says Hiku is so easy a 5-year-old can use it, and I believe it. In fact, I can see an enterprising kid using it to sneak some junk food onto the list, so you might want to check that before you head to the store.

To make the Hiku, Katcher enlisted the help of another former Palm employee, Manu Chatterjee, the creator of the Touchstone charging dock that was introduced with the Palm Pre. Chatterjee serves as the technical adviser to the start-up and contributed to the product’s industrial design and engineering.

Designed to be kept in the kitchen, Hiku features a magnetic back so you can stick it to your refrigerator. It’s also water-resistant and made to withstand a fall or two. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery promises up to two months of battery life with normal use.

Hiku is manufactured by a partner in Asia, but Katcher did not disclose the name of the company at this time.

The mobile app is still under development, but from what I saw, it looked clean and intuitive. It provides an easy-to-read list of items separated by category, such as dairy, produce and so forth. Hiku’s cloud service does all the work in the background to transcribe voice recordings into text and categorize products.

Though Katcher did not announce any retail partners today, you will be able to buy any item that has a price tag icon next to it; once you’ve bought an item, you can simply swipe the screen to cross it off your list.

The mobile app will only be available for iOS devices at first, but everyone else will be able to access basic shopping-list functionality via Hiku’s Web site. Katcher said they might develop apps for other mobile operating systems like Android in the future, but didn’t want to overpromise anything beyond their initial focus.

So, how much will it cost? Hiku is offering an “early bird special,” where the first 500 pledges of $79 will get you one unit. After those 500 devices are gone, the price jumps up to $99 for one, or $189 for two. And if, for some reason, your fridge doesn’t have a magnetic door, you can purchase a Hiku with an extra magnetic accessory for $109. The company must meet its funding goal of $80,000 in 28 days to go into production.

“I came up with Hiku because I was tired of forgetting things,” said Katcher. “But I also totally believe in moving technology inside the home, and making it useful and doing it beautifully. Technology inside the home has been so much about entertainment, but I want it to be helpful to people, and I also think you can do it elegantly and simply, which is what we’re trying to do with our service and solution.”

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