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June 29, 2005 11:28 am

New tools set to solve ancient quest

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Robert Bittlestone is using space age computer visualisation software to solve two ancient puzzles – finding the home of Ulysses, and selling groceries in Idaho.

The quest for Ithaca, the island kingdom of Ulysses, hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, has puzzled classicists and archaeologists for decades.

Even the 19th-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone turned his attention to the problem.

The latest explorer is Mr Bittlestone, managing director of software and consultancy group Metapraxis, who has brought new tools to bear on this ancient quest – satellites and computers.

Of course, there is an island off the coast of modern Greece which is called Ithaca today, where a healthy Homeric tourist industry has cropped up to cash in on the name.

But it is unlikely to have been the real home of Homer’s hero. As Mr Bittlestone says, “Even a casual reading of Homer shows that there is no real relationship between the island that is today called Ithaca and Ulysses’s mythical home.”

For example, lines in the Odyssey suggest that Ulysses’s island is the westernmost island of its group, and that it is low-lying. Modern Ithaca is neither.

Ulysses’s herdsman, Philoetius, drives livestock from the mainland to the island, perhaps because the sea is shallow enough to allow it. This has led some scholars to point to nearby Lefkas, which is connected to the mainland by a narrow spur.

Of course, many details in the Odyssey could never be mapped on to the real world. It is the story of a fantastical journey, where Ulysses visits a floating island, kills a one-eyed giant and dodges a six-headed sea monster. Nonetheless, many scholars believe there are enough real clues in the Odyssey for the hunt to make sense.

But to marshal and organise those clues, and apply them to the modern geography of Greece, Mr Bittlestone recruited some computerised assistance.

Rather than just using notebooks or spreadsheets, he wanted to reconstruct visually the eastern Mediterranean, and search for Ithaca not just with his brain, but with his eyes.

To begin with, he built his own renderings of the area using commercially available satellite images and elevation data, to construct detailed relief maps of likely places.

“By using modern technology it becomes possible to combine fieldwork in Greece with detailed fieldwork in England. I can go to places that you can sometimes never get to,” he says.

Having started the tricky process of combining this data himself, a better answer to his problems came in the form of technology from the US space agency, Nasa, called WorldWind.

Working with computer games designers, Nasa created a three-dimensional model of the earth which the viewer can fly around using a mouse or a keyboard.

The program allows users to explore highly detailed maps of the earth, zooming from a whole earth view to three dimensional renderings of landscapes so detailed that each pixel on screen represents just 15 metres on earth.

Mr Bittlestone’s answer to the riddle of the location of Ithaca remains a secret, until a book on the subject is published in the autumn.

But he is already working on ways to apply the visualisation techniques he developed for his classical quest to the problems of modern business.

His early discussions have been with retailers. A large retailer will have hundreds or even thousands of outlets, selling hundreds of thousands of different items, throwing up a wall of data as confusing as any ancient Greek text.

Metapraxis’s core business is helping companies better understand and predict their financial performance by representing financial data with colourful graphics.

Using geospatial visualisations to help make sense of complex data is a useful tool for commercial organisations in the 21st century. Mr Bittlestone soon realised that the geographical software he was using to visualise ancient Greece could just as easily be used to visualise, say, the performance of a supermarket group.

Each store can be presented on a 3D interactive map, just like the one Nasa produces. “One of the problems of understanding business is relating the macro level to the micro, and WorldWind produces a marvellous continuous experience from one to the other,” he says.

Thriving territories could be shown in blue, and failing territories in red. An area manager could survey his patch from cruising altitude, before swooping down to visit an individual store. As Mr Bittlestone puts it, “you can literally fly around your business.”

By combining the system with existing store visualisation software, Mr Bittlestone hopes eventually to be able to allow managers to tour a virtual model of the store, with products displayed on shelves alongside graphical representations of their recent sales performance. He is already working with several large retailers, but like Ithaca, their names and locations are still under wraps.

If his plans come true, though, the unlikely combination of Greek poetry and space age computer software could soon be helping captains of industry sail the stormy seas of modern commerce.

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