The science behind our search for Waldo Tens of thousands of festival goers dressed as Wally in an attempt to break the record and become the largest gathering of Wallys ever. (William Murphy/Wikimedia Commons)
The science behind our search for Waldo
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There’s more to the question “Where’s Waldo?” than you might think.

Thirty years ago today, the first installment in the Waldo franchise was published in Britain, where he’s actually known as Wally rather than Waldo. Since 1987, the sneaky character has become quite the globetrotter. He’s visited France, where he’s known as Charlie and Bulgaria, where he’s called Uoli. In Croatia he’s Jura and in Iceland he’s Valli. Waldo/Wally/etc is even found on Facebook, where he’s followed by millions.

Why is Waldo so popular? After all, 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: visual search.

Humans use visual search (the technical term for "looking for something with your eyes") constantly, writes cognitive psychologist Miguel P. Eckstein. Tasks like looking for keys, searching a parking lot for your car, or looking for a friend in a crowded shopping mall are all obvious examples, he writes, but visual search also includes zeroing in on a particular thing in your field of vision, like a coffee cup on your desk or 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. In one 2008 study, researchers had their participants search for Waldo while recording their eye movements. 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,” reads 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,” researcher Susana Martinez-Conde was quoted as saying. “This link can help with future advancements such as creating neural prosthetics for patients with brain damage or 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 and shared it with the world on his blog. Using previous findings from Slate’s Ben Blatt that Waldo rarely appears on the edges of the page and never appears at the bottom right of the image, he created an optimized search path for finding Waldo. In case you want to try to optimize your home search, he also looked at the points where Waldo was most likely to be. 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 keep in mind: Waldo’s a tricky little guy, so he could be almost anywhere.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does the article describe Waldo as "tricky"?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (6)
  • ambers-cel
    10/02/2017 - 12:13 p.m.

    It is really amazing how scientists could even think of simply studying eye movements when searching for Waldo and use it for their discovery of the human brain.

  • savannahj-cel
    10/02/2017 - 12:29 p.m.

    Waldo is known by many different names in many different places. When searching for Waldo, you can't just expect to find him right away. Waldo is a tricky guy, who can be hidden anywhere. You need to focus on
    what you are looking for which is Waldo, and try to use fixational eye movement.

  • JadeR-del
    10/03/2017 - 04:09 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky because he is in a children's puzzle game and he is about 2 inches. He is jumbled with other small images and you have to find him. He is tricky to find because he is so small and there is so much to look at around him he is hard to find. "Waldo's a tricky little guy" says Data Scientist Randal S. Olsen

  • JuliaA -del
    10/03/2017 - 04:50 p.m.

    Even though Mr.Delwey told us not to challenge ourselfs yet...I did and it wasn't very hard...you just had to remember. This article taught me how fixational eye movements work.

  • OlivierJ-del
    10/03/2017 - 06:42 p.m.

    It is very interesting that the searchers eye movements change jerk faster when they find Waldo. I am a personal fan and I am very excited about this discovery

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