Meet the local firms creating the next generation of fitness trackers - and find out how you can put them to the test
THERE’S a room inside Prevayl’s headquarters on Mosley Street that houses a weaving loom. Seeing it, you get a weird sense that Manchester’s Cottonopolis past has just collided with its technology-driven present. On the loom, stainless steel yarn containing electrodes is ready to be spun into prototypes for the next generation of athleisure wear. While in a lab next door, the tech team is developing the sensors that translate signals from the electrodes into fitness tracking data on your phone. On the other side of the office is a purpose-built gym where, if you visit at the right time, you might see an England footballer or GB athlete putting the prototypes to the test.
They've been tested at renowned coach Virgil Hunter's gym in the US, and on the likes of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua in the UK.
Head across the city centre to an industrial estate beside the new Mayfield Park and you’ll find another unusual set-up. At Corner Wearables, their headquarters has a boxing ring, punch bags, and a screen showing the speed, power and frequency of the shots being thrown. The data comes from wrist-worn sensors designed and developed here, and now being shipped to gyms and boxers across the US, Australia and Asia.
Welcome to the future of fitness wearables. We’re not in Silicon Valley or Seattle, we’re in Manchester.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be such a surprise; we did invent the computer after all. And as the one-time epicentre of the cotton industry, garment-making is in our bones. It’s one reason Adam Crofts, Prevayl's CEO, founded his business here three years ago.
“The talent around garment technology in Manchester is amazing compared to anywhere else,” he tells me, sitting in the glass-walled meeting room at their office. “The tech talent is incredible as well.”
Adam’s background is in neither: he studied sports science then worked as a personal trainer for many years before setting up Prevayl. The concept for their SmartWear - clothing that tracks your heart rate and temperature amongst other metrics - was partly borne from his frustration with fitness trackers that didn't give him the accuracy and detail he wanted.
Says Adam, “We wanted to take more data than anything else that existed and take it in a more accurate fashion. And we wanted clothing to be the means - with the idea that you always wear clothes.
“We looked into why brands such as Adidas and Under Armour had tried and failed to make a connected solution. We did lots of rapid prototypes and worked on different methodology for how you take information from the body through the clothing, how you process the data, and what format the sensors could come in.”
A disruptor in the fitness tracker market
They launched their first SmartWear products at the start of this year: T-shirts and vests for men, and sports bras for women. He shows me some samples. They're well-made and understated and there's no visible sign of the sensor and electrodes inside.
They also sell PerformanceWear; high-end gym wear without any data sensors - in other words, normal clothes. This might seem strange for a tech brand, until you consider that Adam sees Prevayl as a clothing label which does fitness technology, rather than the other way round.
For me, it’s this clothing-first approach that makes Prevayl stand out as innovators (or ‘disrupters’ in tech bro talk). They’re looking ahead to a world where tracker technology is a standard part of getting dressed in the mornings (and going to sleep at night - they have plans for SmartWear PJs in the pipeline).
How is this different to putting on a Garmin or Apple Watch? Well, because it’s not an addition to your outfit, it’s just part of it. And if what Prevayl say is correct, it’s more accurate. (The consensus is that a chest-worn ECG like Prevayl use in their clothing, and like hospitals use, is more accurate for measuring heart rate than the optical sensors on a wrist-worn tracker.)
Adam says that another thing that sets them apart is that you don’t need a subscription to their app to get your data - you’re given lifelong access when you buy your first piece of SmartWear. Again, it’s just part of the clothing.
Is Smart clothing the future?
It takes a leap of imagination to picture this becoming the norm: a world where our clothes do more than just cover our body, they read it and tell us what’s going on inside. Because who really needs to know, aside from sportspeople and fitness fanatics?
But then I think of something I read recently in Dr Anna Lembke's book Dopamine Nation: "Seventy percent of world global deaths are attributable to modifiable behavioural risk factors like smoking, physical inactivity and diet." And the fact that, as Lembke's goes on to explain, these behaviours or lifestyles, are incredibly easy to fall into.
The temptation to over-work, over-eat, and spend too much time sitting still looking at a screen is hard to resist - and that's not by chance. Processed food is designed to be addictive, like our phones are, and there are a lot more incentives to work than there are to rest, even when rest is what our bodies need the most.
With this in mind, equipping yourself with fitness technology that helps you fight back and adopt healthier behaviours makes a lot of sense to me. A strained NHS and a rising retirement age make it increasingly important to avoid ill-health when possible. If we can help ourselves do that just by getting dressed each day, who's going to say no?
Adam agrees that Prevayl's products have the potential to be more than just a way of improving athletic performance. He says, “We decided to launch first and foremost to sportspeople trying to improve and progress, but our long-term vision is holistic healthcare, health monitoring, and being proactive versus reactive, and guiding people through that journey.”
You can see this preventative approach in a couple of features in the Prevayl app that promote rest rather than activity. Namely, the BodyCheck which measures your HRV (heart rate variability) to gauge how recovered you are, and Guided Breathing which shows the effects of meditation on your body in real-time.
Prevayl sports bra tested
He offers to send me the SmartWear sports bra so I can try it for myself, and a few days later, it arrives in the post. I go through the process of charging the sensor, inserting it into the hidden pocket, and setting myself up on the app. It's all pretty straightforward and easy (well, as easy as it'll ever be to wrestle yourself into a sports bra).
I've never used a digital tracker before. All my fitness data gathering has been strictly analogue: a pen and paper and counting reps in my head. So the experience of watching my heart beat on an ECG graph on my phone is new and exciting to me. And the data it gives me after a run is enlightening: calories burned, speed, pace, training zone, average heart rate. I tend to coast when I run rather than push myself, then wonder why I'm always one of the last to finish in fell races. This could be a game-changer for my lackadaisical ways.
At the moment Prevayl's products are very much aimed at sportspeople and the fitness-conscious but this is just the starting point. One of Adam's first tasks after securing investment for the company was to hire an in-house IP Attorney with the aim of building a patent fortress between the converging worlds of clothing and fitness trackers. It means that when merging the two eventually becomes the norm, Prevayl will be ahead of the game.
Says Adam, “It's really starting to pay off now. We have over 300 IP applications across the business. And that's the beauty of Prevayl; everything is built, owned, and designed - the clothing, the electrodes, the sensors, the data, the app production, the platform - by our teams in-house in Manchester.”
Manchester: the fitness city of the future?
The team at Prevayl aren't the only people in our city working at the forefront of fitness technology. At the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance, a healthcare facility at Sportcity founded by Manchester City Council, Sport England and City Football, the diagnostic facilities include one of Europe's largest environmental chambers, and cutting-edge testing equipment, such as a Biodex isokinetic dynamometer.
It links back to the vision published in Manchester City Council's Sport and Physical Activity Strategy: "To establish Manchester in the top flight of world-class sport cities with all residents active across the life course, helping to transform their health and wellbeing."
Is this a case of various organisations, public and private, working towards the same goals at the same time, in the same city?
Manchester's first boxing tech gym
Over in Ardwick, Corner Wearables are on a similar journey to Prevayl, although they set off a few years earlier in 2015. Back then, the target audience for their wrist-worn boxing trackers was amateur and professional boxers, but now it's much wider.
Jerry Krylov, Corner’s founder and CEO, tells me about their initial goal: “Sports like cycling and running have all this technology, and have had a lot of money invested into them. We asked, how can we do this for boxing? We were seeing if we can track a boxer’s movement and define a single punch and break that down into hooks and uppercuts and jabs, and measure the speed and the power. Because data is everything in sport at the moment.”
The Corner boxing trackers have been used by the International Boxing Federation, in 100-fight tournaments in Russia, and by national teams including Team GB and the national team of Cuba.
They've been tested at renowned coach Virgil Hunter's gym in the US, and on the likes of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua in the UK, though Jerry is tight-lipped when I ask him which of the two measured the strongest punch. "One of the interesting things about the data is what we can share and what we can't," he says.
Like Prevayl they wanted to expand into a wider user base than elite athletes. So they created a series of classes using Corner trackers for gyms, aimed at people who do boxing training for fun and fitness rather than as a combat sport. Then lockdown hit and all the gyms closed, so they adapted again and created an on-demand product that you can use at home.
Says Jerry, "We built our own film studio, worked with trainers, and we now have several hundred on-demand classes on our app and several thousand users. Now, whether you're a gym user, or a professional boxer, or somebody who's boxing for a hobby and trying to get fit, it's the same product that fits between all of it.
Corner boxing trackers tested
Corner gave me some trackers to try out myself. I have to admit, it took me a while to get around to doing their on-demand classes at home. I do boxing lessons twice a week at BLOK and doubted that boxing alone without a bag or pads could compare.
Jerry admits that selling shadowboxing as a fitness class is a challenge. “People feel silly at first because they're punching air, but actually a lot of professional boxers shadowbox. They've got the imagination; it's a whole different art of training. And you'd be surprised at how much of a workout you can get with a couple of little dumbbells in your hands."
I take his advice and have a go at their Fists of Fury class clutching 1kg weights. It’s led by pro boxer Marvin Tomlinson, who also leads classes and manages the gym at Corner HQ.
I’m surprised at how much I get into it: this fight against nobody in my living room. With dumbells in your hands, it's a really intense workout. It's also a good way to drill punch mechanics and footwork. The live leaderboard on the app brings an element of competition into it: I don't know who these other Corner users are who are throwing more punches than me, but I'll show 'em. (Or at least, not come last).
The experience left me wondering how I can fit more Corner classes into my schedule, which reminded me of something Jerry said about how their app is like social media in that it's designed to keep you coming back and hold your attention for as long as possible. But with one big difference.
Says Jerry, “With social media, they’re trying to push you to spend more time on it so that you can see more adverts. Here we’re trying to keep you motivated for as long as possible so that we can get you as fit as possible."
Obviously there are other less altruistic reasons why they might want their boxing technology to have an addictive quality. Jerry would like Corner to be the Peloton or Myzone of boxing one day, used in homes and gyms worldwide. And although that seems like a big dream, after experiencing their classes, both at home and in their gym, I can actually see this happening.
They invited a group of us to do a class at the gym at Corner HQ with Marvin (watch us in action in the reel above). At the end, every single one of us said we wanted to do it again. It was the sheer fun of repeatedly punching something as hard as you can. And the thrill of being able to see who was throwing the most shots and the most powerful - and trying your hardest to overtake them. It got us high in a healthy way, and who doesn't want that?
Of course, it takes a lot more than a good idea and a well-designed product to become a worldwide brand. But it's a solid place to start. If these Manchester businesses can make their name on a global level we could become known as the birthplace of another big shift in how we live: the health revolution.
Could the solutions to some of the problems caused by the Industrial Revolution (over-consumption, over-work, inactivity) be found in the very same place?
Try Manchester's next generation fitness trackers
Prevayl run free sessions at various gyms in Manchester city centre where you can experience their SmartWear for yourself. Visit Prevayl Training Club for more info.
The gym at Corner HQ runs weekday boxing classes and Sunday sparring sessions using their tracker technology. The first class is free.
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