Smart set top box wins Sentech’s Hack the Future contest

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Michael Aldridge
Michael Aldridge

Sentech, in its move to embrace 4IR technology and innovation, recently hosted a an online hackathon. 

The "green team", led by Cape Town-based Michael Aldridge, won the first place at the three-day event for its smart set-top box solution.

The Hack the Future Challenge comprised a hackathon with a R185 000 prize pool and an ideation challenge, with R10 000 for the winning team.

Sentech’s head of research and innovation, Dumisa Ngwenya, said the hackathon is a way of building a talent pool and using new tech to assist Sentech and the broadcasting industry as a whole. “We're moving beyond the theory of new technologies; we’ve deployed new technology such as 5G and cloud computing to bring advanced use cases and, ultimately, provide a better user experience for citizens. Don’t just think out the box, there is no box!”

Speaking on behalf of his team, Michael Aldridge says the idea for a smart set-top box has been some years in the making. He’s watched the country’s broadcast migration struggle, including the scandals surrounding government’s procurement of set-top boxes (STBs). He says that smart STBs such as the one he and his team worked on could be an asset to households.

"Many people in South Africa, especially in rural areas, lack Internet connectivity and computing capacity. While they may have access to smartphones, those offer very limited computing capacity," he said. Smart set-top boxes differ from usual STBs in that they can connect to the Internet and can act as a WiFi hotspot for other devices.

“The smart STB turns any TV monitor into a mini-computer. This can help bridge the country's digital divide," he said.

Aldridge works as the head of technical operations at Cape Town TV, a community television station. He previously worked with Sentech in developing a prototype of a digital receiver. The smart STB solution was submitted in both the hackathon and ideation challenges.

As a mini-computer, the team's smart set-top box has all the functionality of a basic PC. It will come preloaded with open source software such as a word processor, e-mail and a Web browser. It can be used to write code, and will also have USB ports and an Ethernet connection. STBs also allow for data-casting, which, Aldridge says, could be used to provide additional services such as e-government and e-learning.

The team hopes that the R95 000 cash prize will help get the smart STBs to market by late next year or 2022.

The Kreate team, with its unified communications platform Qtune, came second, while third place went to Naki Technologies for its solution using chatbots to meet the customer service challenges presented by COVID-19.

Catering to local needs

The ideation challenge was open exclusively to Sentech customers, partners and service providers. The challenge was won by ICT solutions services provider Broadsmart for its online transcription tool iScribe.

The tool aims to fill the gap left by international transcription tools, which don’t typically cater for South Africa’s indigenous languages. iScribe transcribes audio and video using AI and machine learning. It’s available for free or paid subscription that offers live transcription of content as well as human editing of the text.

Broadsmart previously worked with Sentech on various projects, including last year’s GovTech conference. 

Explaining how iScribe could add value to Sentech’s ecosystem, Broadsmart software engineer Kweku Quansah says: “Sentech provides a number of broadcast services for TV and radio. What happens when a segment you’re interested in is in a language you don’t understand, like English? iScribe can give you that content as written text, taking it from English to your native language.”

The solution’s algorithm is still being trained for each local language.

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