Co-founder Mike Telem said Kemtai AI’s precursors were expensive sensors and frivolous Wii exercise games. Kemtai found a way to turn similar ideas into affordable, intense exercise.
Log into Kemtai and you’ll see a mirror video image of yourself with thick lines traced along the arms, legs, torso and shoulders — like one of those cheap Halloween costume tights of a skeleton. Usually, sessions start with moving back and forward and adjusting the webcam until your entire body is in the frame. Then a smiling trainer in a window next to you guides you through a series of crunches, squats, shoulder circles, etc. The trainer is an avatar version of an actual fitness instructor hired by the 18-month-old company. With its system honed in on your body, Kemtai gives you an exact score on how well you followed their lead. Occasionally, you’ll hear a command like “go lower.”
With an AI providing the voice and visual feedback and a pre-recorded person providing the workout, the noun “trainer” can get somewhat confusing when discussing Kemtai, as I discovered halfway through my interview with Mike Telem, co-founder and chief business officer of the Tel Aviv-based startup. Conceptually, though, the promise by Kemtai is personal training without the trainer. For $19 a month, the service provides the exercises and the feedback a paid gym buddy would. It also promises that without requiring any additional purchases, one of its distinctions in an increasingly crowded market of online fitness instruction.
Maybe we can start at the beginning. When did you first see a need for a technology like this and when did you enter the company?
I’m one of the three co-founders of Kemtai, together with Mor Amitai and Naomi Keren. Kemtai was founded about 18 months ago. We have a pretty long and substantial background in computer vision and we’re all second-time entrepreneurs, so we spent a lot of time in this high-tech and start-up world. We also all love sports. The three co-founders, we’ve all done either amateur or semiprofessional sports. I used to do martial arts. I was a professional squash player when I was younger. Now I am very much into Masters Swimming. Naomi is a Pilates instructor, apart from being an entrepreneur and a doctor for neuroscience and all of our experience in fitness has taught us the importance of guidance and feedback, whether it’s from a colleague working out with you or a fellow athlete or a trainer that helps you. Even when we were not competitive anymore, for the ability to do things better, to do things safer and even the ability to have more fun while you’re at it. Naomi and Mor specifically came from the computer vision world, we realize that we can combine these two worlds together and with the advancements in computer vision.
Even the most of advanced, so-called connected fitness devices don’t actually see you, don’t actually provide any specific feedback. They can’t tell you how fast you’re going or how long you’ve been doing it, whether you’re doing it right or wrong or what to do to improve. You don’t get that, so that’s the basic promise of Kemtai, providing that feedback, that guidance, and also a score to let you know where you are and how well you have been doing and potentially compare that to what you’ve done previously.
I see that it has this AI that can monitor your performance. What technology that is already in existence were you looking to improve or adapt?
I would say the previous attempts to do things like this were either based on various types of sensors that you had to buy and put on your body in order for some machine that is there, using infrared or other types of sensing technologies to try to identify your movement. That was expensive, cumbersome and not too successful. There were attempts at more gamified variations of this, whether it was the Nintendo Wii, where accuracy actually did not matter or even hinder the experience. The objective when you play tennis in a video game is to make it easy for you, not to make it realistic, otherwise you probably won’t enjoy it as much. So most of what we’ve seen in the market are very, very few expensive devices or just playing video, static video that doesn’t tell you much.
Talk to me about affordability. Is your product commercially available yet and how much does it cost?
We haven’t done a proper, large launch yet but the product is available. A subscription costs $19 a month and you get access to most of the content that’s on Kemtai. That means you can choose various trainers on the system. These are actual trainers that uploaded their workouts to Kemtai and you get guidance and feedback that is based on their way, their style of fitness, so we’re not necessarily replacing the trainer but we are creating a platform where trainers can expand their reach to thousands, and potentially more than that, of trainees that can work out with their videos and get feedback and guidance, as if that trainer, who you happen, as if he or she were right there at home with. Kemtai for a year might cost you around what a couple of sessions with a person trainer would cost you.
Let’s talk about timing. Eighteen months ago takes us roughly back to November 2019. I don’t think I need to go over how much has changed since then, particularly in regard to fitness and fitness instruction. Has there been any attempt to speed up the process, to get it to market sooner because of the intense demand for at-home workout instruction?
Obviously, we’re trying our best to move as fast as possible. We were aware of the opportunity and it did help us get a lot of initial traction, even before the product was commercially viable, but when we already had just a few exercises and workouts. We were able to get more than 60,000 exercises done on the system, get a lot of feedback, have hundreds of people fill surveys and tell us what they felt when they used Kemtai and obviously used that to improve. We weren’t as anxious to speed up and potentially do some mistake, simply because home fitness has always been a huge market. If anything, what the pandemic has done, is opened up people’s minds to theology and fitness technology and how it can, in some cases, provide superior experience to what you can find in a gym. Peloton was $7 billion before COVID. So COVID has actually done them very well, but it’s not like they were not around. The advantages of working out at home have always been there since the days of DVDs and Jane Fonda and things like that. We did provide free access to Kemtai in different countries as they were getting hit hard by corona. At the beginning, it was Italy for instance. So we allowed people from Italy to use it for free and we had a lot of good feedback there. Even though it was still in English, they enjoyed it very much.
A key difference between you and a company like Peloton is I don’t have to pay $2,000 and make room for a piece of equipment. What exactly do I need for Kemtai in terms of hardware?
No specific hardware. We basically turn any camera into a digital personal trainer. We started with laptops and computers. We’re now expanding to mobile devices and tablets, so about 90 percent of any average devices will work with Kemtai and will work properly, so you don’t need to buy anything special. You don’t need to have an enormous amount of room to place some hardware device and you get things that you don’t get from Tonal or Tempo or Peloton or any of these other products, mainly guidance and feedback and the ability to do exercises other than spinning and things like that, that these companies only provide a video for. If you want streaming video, you can go to YouTube and get it for free and that’s great. I used to use it a lot, a few years ago. That’s part of what created this idea in my mind. But if you want to know if you are doing it right, if you want to get corrections when needed, if you want to be able to compare your workout.
And what kind of exercises? I saw Pilates mentioned on the website. Is there a particular kind of routine or trainer this is best suited for?
We started out with basic exercises and moved toward high-intensity interval training and Pilates. We also support exercises with rubber bands and light weights and as we continue we expand further and further the different types of exercises that we do. As mentioned, we also support different styles of doing similar exercises, so if one trainer thinks that you should be doing a squat one way and another trainer thinks slightly different. Fitness is kind of like music; there are various trends and styles to it. Depending on the trainer that you chose in Kemtai that day, you might get slightly different feedback because that trainer thinks [you] should be doing that slightly differently. So we support a pretty wide array of upper body, lower body, cardio, strength, flexibility and we constantly expand on that.
You said feedback from a trainer. Are we talking about the AI or who are you getting feedback from exactly?
First of all, as a user, you get both visual and audio feedback, literally telling you, “Straighten your back when you squat” or “Don’t squats so low,” the exact type of feedback a trainer would give you if he were there, looking at what you doing. The way that the algorithms work is that we compare in real time your motion to what the trainer is showing you and we’re highlighting the things you’re doing right and the things that you’re doing wrong or not so right and we’re helping you understand them in real time, so this is not like a report that you get later. Also, the trainer can upload variations of that exercise at different levels, so the feedback is based on the way that that trainer is doing it.
So the feedback you’re getting, that’s an automated response based on what the AI race reads, is that correct?
Yes, the high-level easy way to explain it is that the AI sees you, leads your motion and posture, compares it to what the trainer showed you — is showing you right now — realizes the difference and gives you a quick score and, if there is a feedback to give you, gives you some feedback, not with every repetition, but just so you can improve and it does so in real time.
And when we say “trainer,” just to define that noun in this context, that’s… you have people who teach classes, actual flesh-and-blood human beings and they’re the people who you are watching but the AI is the entity giving you the feedback?
Yeah, but the people that you’re watching, they don’t need to be live at the moment. That means that good trainers can really scale up Kemtai because the 10,000 people might be working out them in any given moment.
Trainers have moved into these virtual worlds and are streaming in these complex ways. This sounds like a particularly novel way to train people from an exercise instructor’s perspective. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the people who are actually making the videos?
We just recently started approaching external trainers. We already have quite a few of them on the system from the US, from Japan, from England, from Brazil, and our users can enjoy those trainers and their workouts. The initial feedback was very good. It does take a few minutes to realize the potential and then what they really like is the fact that it brings their style to life. With regular videos that everybody’s doing — everybody out there has streaming videos — you can dress in a certain way, you can have very nice surroundings or you can do high-quality video or whatever, but you’re not really training the person. You’re not there with them. Kemtai is the closest thing to being there with them. It’s like a virtual instance of that trainer at your own side. Even larger brands don’t have anything like this.
And once you are done with the workout, do you get additional feedback afterwards? Does it keep an overall data profile of the user?
Yeah, there’s a user profile. You can redo your previous workouts. You can see how do you improved, if you improved. You get AI-based workout recommendations, so we can tell you what’s probably the best next workouts for you to do. There’s also a very neat module that can have called “The Workout Wizard,” where you choose the duration, the focus area, the style of the workout and the difficulty level, and we create a one-of-a-kind workout for at this moment.
Let’s talk longer term about this technology. I imagine you set out with a concept of personalizing online training. What sort of technological limits did you find and how do you expect those to be changing in the future?
There are some limitations. For instance, we set out and said we don’t want you to have to buy anything. That was a really big challenge and still is. For privacy reasons and performance reasons, all the processing is done on your device, which means that we need to be able to run on any device without even knowing what you have in the first place. That is still a challenge to some extent. As I said, we are able to run properly on 85 to 90 percent of the devices. As devices become stronger, that’s going to improve. As devices have more graphical processing capabilities, it is even going to improve further.
Another challenge is the fact that your camera, especially on laptops, is probably very, very basic. It’s 2D. [Ours] is one of the only solutions out there that can work on 2D, and not 3D. That is another challenge because sometimes that means that you’re going to have to step up a couple steps more away from the computer so that we can see your full body. With mobile devices and tablets, that’s not an issue. Mobile devices have another challenge: The screen is pretty small. So if you can connect it to a TV, that’s great. A lot of people don’t know how to connect their phone to a TV, so that’s more of a user experience challenge. We’re working on most, if not all, of these, and it will take time, but we’re making good progress on those. Those are some of the — let’s call them Kemtai-specific challenges that we’re seeing right now. Also, working on making the experience as human as possible, whether it’s the voice, whether it’s the timing of the feedback that you’re getting. It’s pretty good now but it could definitely be better.
Do you ever see a wearable playing a part in this or are you trying to avoid that so that anyone can use any device they already have?
I think we’ll have some optional integrations to incorporate heartbeat and things like [that], whether you are wearing a fitness watch. Where integration with wearables makes sense in terms of providing added value for correlating information for the user, we will definitely do that, but I don’t see that becoming a major part in the product itself.
Last question and this may seem a little silly: What does the word kemtai mean? Is it from any language?
No, it’s not. Kemtai is a global brand; we have users all over the world. It was important to us to symbolize something that sounds related to wellness, that has some movement in it and that’s how we came up with Kemtai.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Nick Keppler is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. He enjoys writing the difficult stories, the ones that make him pore over studies, talk about subjects that make people uncomfortable, and explain concepts that have taken years to develop. Nick has written extensively about psychology, healthcare, and public policy for national publications and for those locally- based in Pittsburgh. In addition to Athletech News, Nick has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Vice, Slate, Reuters, CityLab, Men’s Health, The Gizmodo Media Group, The Financial Times, Mental Floss, The Village Voice and AlterNet. His journalistic heroes include Jon Ronson, Jon Krakauer and Norah Vincent.