UP and DOST-ASTI engineers prototype set-top box to help bridge education’s digital divide

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion


Video by UP Media and Public Relations Office

 

 

It would be safe to think, when skimming through recent news articles of his activities, that Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr.’s sights are set intently on space. While space does certainly preoccupy most of his thoughts as the director of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), a good number of his advocacies are much closer to earth. Indeed, together with his fellow UP experts and engineers, the 26-year veteran faculty member at UP Diliman’s Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (EEEI) has his eyes set on a problem—the country’s digital divide that continues to be a thorn in the side of those whose efforts are on providing quality virtual education.

 

Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr., director of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), explains during an interview the possibilities of the set-top box for the country’s educational sector. Photo by Jun Madrid, UPMPRO.

 

“Everybody is aware of the challenges we are facing in terms of delivering education to the people,” Marciano said. “Our young people need to get back to school—but they can’t. We need to deal with the lack of connectivity.”

According to Marciano, to fully realize the country’s goal to meet every student’s distance learning needs, it is necessary for the internet to be pervasive, which it currently is not. “How then do we deliver education and services if the Internet is still not that ubiquitous, many people are still unconnected, and there are communities that are still left unserved?”

As a complementary measure, Marciano and colleagues from the Department of Science and Technology’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI), where he previously served as Director prior to moving to the PhilSA, are looking into adapting an emerging technology to reach the places that the Internet currently cannot. While some television networks have explored the possibilities of digital TV in providing quality entertainment to more people, they believe that the same medium can be maximized to serve the needs of students and teachers.

 

The powers of digital

In the Full Anechoic Chamber at the heart of the UP EEEI’s ULyS3ES building, Marciano’s small group of like-minded engineers demonstrate a prototype of what some TV networks have brought into a considerable number of our households: the set-top box. This device, which allows analogue televisions to receive digital broadcasts, has traditionally been used to provide exclusive programming from digital-only channels. As experts in wireless communication, however, Marciano and a team of engineers led by Mr. Calvin Artemies Hilario of the DOST-ASTI, are confident that these devices can do much more.

There are inherent advantages for TV broadcast to go digital, which can be leveraged for educational applications. Marciano mentions a few.

First is the fact that digital signals can be more robust. Unlike analogue TV broadcast, which is similar to traditional AM and FM radio, information in digital broadcasts is converted into ‘bits’ or binary digits, which can be more readily processed by computers. These bits can be computed on and stored to make the broadcast system more efficient and reliable.

“If your house is far away from the broadcast station, the signal that reaches you can be very weak and therefore prone to errors or distortion.” Marciano says. “The very nature of digital information means that computers can detect errors in the transmissions and also apply corrections to them.” Explaining the concept of the noise floor, or the threshold below which a communication signal cannot normally be picked up, he says that digital signals, even when badly degraded or noisy, can be fitted with protections that assure reliable reception.

 

Mr. Calvin Artemies Hilrario and Mr. Jean Jay Quitayen (sitting in front of the PC), both from the Solutions and Services Engineering Division of the DOST-ASTI, test the ability of the set-up box—the black gadget in the upper right corner of the cardboard box—to receive digital broadcast signals. Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO.

 

Another distinct advantage is the way digital TV can send much more content than its analogue counterpart over the same channel. In the Philippines, TV stations broadcast over designated radio frequencies assigned by regulators and the width of this channel is 6 MegaHertz (or 6,000,000 Hz). This “bandwidth”, Marciano explains, is “analogous to the lanes in a road or highway and more efficient systems would be able to offer higher capacity, such as by handling more traffic or support higher speeds, for the same width of road”.  Using digital TV, a broadcaster can send multiple content simultaneously in one 6Mhz-wide channel, as opposed to only one content in the analogue TV system.

“If you are a digital TV station, you can accommodate up to six different content at the same time over one 6 MHz channel,” adds Mr. Hilario. “Whereas in analogue systems you would need six separate channels, which is inefficient.”

Anyone familiar with digital broadcasts also knows that audio and video can be more robustly represented in digital format. This means that potential students can access better quality images, which can come in handy in some areas of study.

 

In the Full Anechoic Chamber located in the UP ULyS3ES lobby, Mr. Calvin Artemies Hilario of the Solutions and Services Engineering Division of the DOST-Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI) tests the prototype of the set-top box attached to a PC. The device allows analogue television to receive interactive digital broadcasts. Photo by Jun Madrid, UPMPRO.

 

Datacasting and education

The possibility of sending supplemental information apart from the original audio and video broadcast content is the key that Marciano and his colleagues think can be a game-changer for Philippine higher education. In broadcasting parlance that function is called ‘datacasting’, and while foreign countries already use it, for example, to provide real-time sports data and information on-screen running in parallel with an actual game, it can be used to provide an element of interactivity that the traditionally unidirectional TV medium has been lacking when used for learning.

“Now imagine interacting with your TV via your remote,” he adds. Other countries, Marciano notes, already do this for channels like TV shopping, where you can use your remote to interact and purchase via your set-top box.  “So, set-top boxes can be two-way. This is prevalent in cable TV systems, but not in free-to-air broadcast.” he notes.

Marciano thinks educators can take advantage of datacasting and the possible return-path to create more interaction with students. The following diagram illustrates their current implementation, where datacasting is used to encode and “multiplex” text, files and other interactive content in the TV programming along with a return path that provides the means for obtaining feedback. For Marciano and his team, these features enable TV broadcast to deliver even richer information, foremost with distance education in mind.

 

Datacasting serves as an additional “pipe” for digital information that enriches TV broadcast content for education. Diagram from Dr. Marciano and Mr. Hilario.

 

He explains that the return path can be implemented in the set-top box by building basic capability such as SMS, for example. “In this return path, the data you’re sending back is really not that heavy,” he said, citing multiple choice questions and daily checkups as some things that can be responded to by students and transmitted back directly. “So, you are no longer just running a video. You can pick a time to send a question like, ‘are you ok?’ or some other questions that they can answer optionally.”

“With or without the Internet, we can also try to reach our audience via free-to-air digital TV. Digital information can reach them in one hop; we just have to be able to concentrate the content in one place—the TV station. It does not replace the Internet, but it can bridge and augment,” says Marciano. “And while TV has been used in education for a long time, let us not forget the features that digital TV has like datacasting that can enrich the experience of those watching your content. For educators, the challenge is to devise and construct content that takes advantage of that capability.”

 

Dr. Marciano during the testing of the set-up box protoype. Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO.

 

Content need not always be synchronous, too. According to Marciano, their prototype also aims to take advantage of the fact that through datacasting, a broadcaster can transparently send other content in the background while the main TV program is being played. Some materials do not have to be consumed right away and can be stored in the set-top box to be accessed afterwards. “For education, datacasting can also provide a path for sending digital information to learners outside of what is being displayed immediately onscreen. It can come with advisories like, ‘after watching this broadcast, open this.’ Then you can press a special button in the remote and it will access other information in your set-top box and run it. So, it can be a file that can be displayed, or it can be a website or a form where you can answer a quiz, or additional offline video materials they can watch. That’s possible and we demonstrate it in our implementation.”

Depending on how they are made, set-top boxes can also come with recording features for broadcast programs and lectures. “You can store them in the hard drives of set-top boxes,” Marciano stresses. Depending on the size of the hard drive included in the box, students can run back lectures to review and check at their own leisure. “In our implementation, the box is practically a small computer with a built-in TV receiver and uses TV screen as a monitor. We can connect a keyboard and mouse to replace the remote control.”

 

An educator’s task

While highlighting the advantages of such a medium for education nationwide, Marciano is quick to note that it should be educators who must take up the challenge of creating content that will maximize the capabilities of digital TV.

“We’re more on the technology platform side,” he says. “We can tell them what the limits are, what they are able to do, and how to possibly implement the reverse channel going back.” The rest, he said, is up to a teacher’s needs and creativity.

Marciano also believes there is potential for digital TV to complement not just purely pedagogical pursuits but to support more general university functions. “For example, we wake up at 4 in the morning to bad weather and we are not sure if we should suspend classes,” he notes. “The decision perhaps becomes easier because we don’t need our students to physically come to the classroom, though that may be ideal.”

 

The little “mahiwagang” black box that can go a long way in helping educate Filipinos. Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO.

 

Therefore, digital TV can serve as a far-reaching back-up system to keep classes on track in times of bad weather or many other sorts of disruptions. “Just tell everybody that there is a protocol in place that we may resort to when classes are suspended.” Hopefully, we would not have to deal with disruptive conditions of such scale, but if classes do need to be suspended, “it’s not going to be a difficult decision because of interventions like these.”

Marciano and his colleagues make it clear that they are not endorsing digital TV per se as a standard. “It is fundamentally about leveraging and innovating on the technology options we have at the moment. In areas where connectivity is unavailable, let us see what other available technologies like digital TV and satellites can do to bridge the gap,” he says. “These interventions are part of efforts to enable community networks to flourish in unserved areas in the country, which involves ensuring proper management and productive use of TV and radio frequencies. At the PhilSA, we support these initiatives through our space missions, specifically on measuring radio spectrum utilization, developing radio payloads and promoting communication satellites.”

Overall, as with all innovations, it will take an ecosystem to make the most out of it. Educators and broadcasters alike will have to work with engineers and policymakers to make it happen. Long has the country wrestled with the realities of making connections in an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. “With every island we have to lay down submarine cables, as we are connected either through wireless links or cables under the sea.”

Digital TV could be another tool in UP’s growing arsenal to accomplish its mandate and provide education to more people than ever before. “Let us say that UP in Miag-ao has a TV station, then you can extend the reach of that campus beyond the classroom, its teachers and students. How about the surrounding communities? You can reach them as well.”

 

 

SHARE ON
TwitterFacebook