Like many fitness enthusiasts in Singapore, Nur’aisha Hassan has recently included online videos in her exercise regimen.
But the 46-year-old is not following videos on YouTube or attending fitness classes via Zoom – she is instead guided by a web application that uses artificial intelligence to provide its users with real-time feedback and thus acts as a virtual personal trainer.
The app by digital fitness company Kemtai launched in South-east Asia on June 1, and recorded 200 registrants in Singapore in its first week.
The programmes on the app are designed by trainers from all over the world. Kemtai uses computer vision on a laptop web browser to view and analyse users’ exact movements and guide their form through verbal instructions and live graphic demonstrations.
Users are also awarded scores based on how accurately they execute a particular exercise.
Mike Telem, one of Kemtai’s three founders, said of the inspiration to start the app: “We realised the importance of getting accurate feedback to make our exercises more effective and fun, but we couldn’t always afford to get a personal trainer.
“We figured that there could be a way to leverage on cutting-edge computer vision technology to create an experience similar to having a personal trainer guiding you – software that would be able to actually see you and analyse your movements.”
Responding to The Sunday Times’ questions on privacy that potential users might have, Telem said: “Ensuring data privacy is of utmost importance to us. All of the motion processing done by Kemtai runs on the user’s device.
“Training feedback is calculated on the video in real-time, so videos are not recorded or sent anywhere, unless the user specifically requests to save them.”
For Nur’aisha, whose fitness programme for the last two years has included yoga, walking and doing stretching on her own, the Kemtai web app has been “mindblowing”.
“I was very intrigued by how precise it was, and I even tried to fool it by moving out of range so it couldn’t detect my feet, and it told me to come back,” said the tutor, who last engaged a personal trainer about six years ago.
I was very intrigued by how precise it was, and I even tried to fool it by moving out of range so it couldn’t detect my feet, and it told me to come back.
NUR’AISHA HASSAN, fitness enthusiast, on the Kemtai web app.
“I feel as if my no-nonsense trainer is there with me. There are static exercises for strength and movements like jumping jacks, and your form needs to be precise…
“I’m not put off by just doing static movements because I know that if done properly, it can give you a good workout, get your heart rate up and tone all the parts that need toning.”
Cabin crew Shaun Dominic Rishi, who has been using the app for about two weeks, was also impressed by its level of precision.
“When you’re doing a squat, for example, it tells you whether you’re overextending your knees and analyses the height ratio, and this is live so it’s like someone next to you telling you, ‘No, too low’.
“It gives you that feeling of having somebody right next to you and coaching you,” said the 36-year-old, an avid gym-goer.
However, former national thrower Benny Lam, now a personal trainer and director of Podium 60 Fitness, noted that while the app would be helpful to those who want to be active and work up a sweat, its effectiveness also depends on users’ fitness goals.
“It wouldn’t be suitable for people who already know what they’re doing and want to achieve even better results, such as being a bodybuilding champion or a callisthenics expert,” said the 27-year-old.
He also believes that it would be difficult for an app to replace human interaction.
He explained: “A trainer does more than just follow along – different people respond to different types of encouragement, some need trainers to scream at them, some need them to train together, and some need a gentle approach.
“Everyone’s (body is) also different when it comes to doing this kind of movement, some have immobility in their shoulders, ankles or hips and if the app tells them to squat lower but they can’t, it doesn’t mean they are bad.”
Telem, 44, said the founders had initially planned for a global launch this November, but brought forward their beta testing to March as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in more people staying home and the closure of gyms and fitness facilities.
The Israeli also felt that growth potential in South-east Asia is “enormous”, adding: “We felt that the awareness for wellness in general and fitness in particular is on the rise.
“Combining innovative tech with something anyone can use seemed like a good fit for the territory, and having an experienced partner in South-east Asia just made the decision easier.”
Iskandar Shahril, the marketing partner of Kemtai in the region, acknowledged the plethora of fitness resources available, including live and recorded online sessions.
But he noted the provision of real-time feedback is a unique factor, coupled with its convenience and affordability – the monthly cost of the annual premium subscription is US$8 (S$11.15). To hire a personal trainer in Singapore can cost between $70 and $150 per session, depending on the nature of the workout.
“It’s suitable for regular gym-goers who need a supplementary workout at home, as well as newbies embarking on a fitness journey,” added the 45-year-old, who is the marketing head at Purple Patch Sports.
“With working from home becoming the new norm, and restrictions on gyms with reopening timings and safe distancing matters, a virtual home fitness workout would complement this new lifestyle.”