by Walt Klappert ME MFA PE
Starting in 1988, the Megillah System (1) was Warner New Media's and Time Warner Interactive's demonstration system for showcasing a future media player for distributing new entertainment products like movies, television, multimedia, games and other interactive products. Features from this system became part of the DVD (Digital Video Disc). Additionally, at least one patent (2) resulting from the project helped protect the movie and television studios from paying more royalties when other patent-holding companies claimed the DVD infringed on their patents.
After some Warner New Media (WNM) brainstorming sessions run by Stan Cornyn with Al McPherson, George Lydecker, Michael Case and me (Walt Klappert), work began in earnest by visiting Pioneer Electronics in Japan in 1988. This visit resulted in a getting-started system which could provide multiple alternative subtitles on video coming from an advanced Laserdisc player. This early system used a Japanese NEC Computer with an extension card which accomplished the video overlay. This Laserdisc system was also capable of playing alternative audio tracks. The combination allowed this early system to playback a movie with multiple languages in the audio, as well as with subtitles. Denon may have also contributed a component to this system.
The WNM team then turned to adding alternative video capability and rebuilding Megillah. I took over as the lead on this project as the Head of Technology of WNM. We replaced the Japanese computer with American IBM personal computer clones (seen to my left at the bottom of the accompanying collage) and added extension cards which could grab alternate video frames from two videos which were interlaced with one another. This meant the video from two cameras could be delivered simultaneously and the Megillah system could be used to select which video you watched at any moment. This worked well for two cameras covering a Basketball game for example. Later, four videos from a live Fleetwood Mac rock concert were interlaced, and this also made a good demonstration for alternative videos. Even four Loony Tunes cartoons were interlaced and shown in Megillah demonstrations. Not coincidentally, the ability to switch between alternative video is one of the DVD's (Digital Video Disc) capabilities.
The Megillah system and WNM related products, some led technically by Jim Bumgardner, also demonstrated exciting branching programs. These were multimedia programs of menus, slides, audio and video where a user of the system could choose from menus and cause the Laserdisc player or Compact Disc player to hop from place to place on their discs. In one case, Megillah used a lot of footage from Fleetwood Mac to explore the history of their band.
To meet our technical needs, I invented a way to embed branching information on our Laserdiscs. This data told the disc-player where to hop to get to other videos and menus for example. My United States Patent number 5161034 (2) covered this invention. The patent became important later when Warner Bros. and the other studios had to defend themselves again outside patent holders trying to get royalties from DVDs. Klappert 034, as the patent was called, represented prior art.
Along the way, Warner New Media had several meetings with Warren Lieberfarb's group at Warner Home Video (WHV), especially with Lewis Ostrover and Chris Cookson. Chris was actually with Warner Bros. Studio but worked closely with Lewis and Warren on their DVD (Digital Video Disc) project. I brainstormed with Lewis and Chris to make sure Megillah features ended up in the DVD standard. WHV worked most closely with Toshiba in this effort, but the other major companies who brought the DVD to market like Sony, Philips, Pioneer and others also worked with WHV.
Megillah was a pretty secret project for years, nonetheless it was shown frequently at Warner New Media's offices in Burbank, California. A copy of the system was also built into the road box which appears in the photos here. This road box was about 5-foot long, 2-foot wide and 3.5-foot tall, and was on wheels, so it could travel anywhere in the world. In addition to company meetings in the continental United States, Megillah went to executive conferences in places like Hawaii and Acapulco, Mexico. Eventually, Time Warner's President Steven Jay Ross saw a demonstration in person. Shortly after seeing Megillah, Mister Ross invited Director and Producer Steven Spielberg to see the system. Mister Spielberg was impressed with the system and amused that one of his movies 'Innerspace' was featured in the demo.
After the merger between Time Incorporated and Warner Communication completed, Warner New Media became known as Time Warner Interactive. Time Warner Interactive made another copy of the Megillah system and installed it at the opening of the Warner Bros. Studio store on 5th Avenue in New York City, where everyone could see The Megillah and play with its Interactivity.
(1) "'Future Tense': The New Link Between Arts and Technology". The Los Angeles Times. 29 January 1991. pp. F8.
(2) https://patents.google.com/patent/US5161034?oq=5161034 United States Patent Number 5161034.