The science behind our search for Waldo
There’s more to the question “Where’s Waldo” than you might think.
The first book in the Waldo franchise was published thirty years ago. It was published in Britain. He’s known there as Wally and not Waldo. The sneaky character has become quite the globetrotter. This has been true since 1987.
He’s visited France. He’s known as Charlie there. He’s called Uoli in Bulgaria. In Croatia he’s Jura. In Iceland he’s Valli. Waldo or Wally is even on Facebook. He is followed by millions.
Why is Waldo so popular? Looking for his little figure in a two-page spread of other characters doing whimsical activities can get frustrating. But it's also an example of a very basic (and sometimes satisfying) cognitive process. That process is visual search.
Humans use visual search constantly. That's according Miguel P. Eckstein. He's a cognitive psychologist. The technical term for "looking for something with your eyes" is visual search.
Obvious examples include tasks like looking for keys. It might be searching a parking lot for your car. Another example is looking for a friend in a crowded shopping mall.
But visual search also includes zeroing in on a particular thing in your field of vision. Such a thing could be a coffee cup on your desk. It might be a Waldo on a page. These are known as “fixational eye movements.”
Waldo has helped researchers better understand the fixational eye movements involved in visual search. A study was conducted in 2008. Researchers had their participants search for Waldo. Researchers recorded their eye movements while they searched. What they found helped resolve the role of a particular kind of fixational eye movement in visual search.
“Results showed that the rate of microsaccades - tiny, jerk-like fixational eye movements - dramatically increased when participants found Waldo.” That was according to a press release about the study.
The results helped researchers to establish a “direct link between microsaccades and how we search for objects of interest.” That's according to researcher Susana Martinez-Conde.
“This link can help with future advancements such as creating neural prosthetics for patients with brain damage. It could also help with machines that can see as well as humans.”
Science isn't just using Waldo to make discoveries about the human brain. It's also helped us understand how to find Waldo. Data scientist Randal S. Olson computed the best search strategy for finding Waldo. He shared it with the world on his blog.
He used previous findings from Slate’s Ben Blatt. He found that Waldo rarely appears on the edges of the page. And he found that Waldo never appears at the bottom right of the image. He created an optimized search path for finding Waldo.
Do you want to optimize your home search? He also looked at the points where Waldo was most likely to be.
He made his recommendations. Start at the bottom left of the two-page image. Then move up to the upper quarter of the right page. Then head down to the bottom right half. But here is something to keep in mind. Waldo’s a tricky little guy. He could be almost anywhere.