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, the first book in the Waldo franchise was published in Britain. He’s actually known as Wally there rather than Waldo. 

Since 1987, the sneaky character has become quite the globetrotter. He’s visited France. He’s known as Charlie there. In Bulgaria, he’s called Uoli. In Croatia he’s Jura. In Iceland he’s Valli. Waldo or Wally is even on Facebook, 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. 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 or 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 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. 

He used 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. These are his recommendations. Start at the bottom left of the two-page image and 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, 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 (18)
  • mollyn-cel
    10/02/2017 - 12:22 p.m.

    Waldo could be anywhere in the page. He is hard to find in a two page layout filled with many people and contrasting colors. After all he is a tiny man in a crowd of maybe hundreds of others and other red and white colors all over.

  • BrianaM-del1
    10/03/2017 - 07:02 p.m.

    the article descries him as tricky because they say " he could be almost anywhere".

  • ellyb-orv
    10/03/2017 - 07:42 p.m.

    I loved playing wheres waldo when i was little. It would either take to me two seconds to find him or one hour.

  • KyleP-del1
    10/04/2017 - 08:12 a.m.

    Waldo was described to be anywhere

  • graceh-cel
    10/05/2017 - 09:33 a.m.

    "Where is Waldo?" has proven to be one of children's favorite past times. The article describes Waldo as "tricky". This is because research has shown that people have an easier time finding things that they know they want to find. The Waldo experiment could help scientists develop neural advancements.

  • ethanm-orv
    10/05/2017 - 07:33 p.m.

    where's waldo??

  • ZaimaS-pay
    10/09/2017 - 02:24 p.m.

    Where's Waldo is tricky because there are so many more characters in the where's Waldo series but i really like because i like visual games.

  • LukeD-ell
    10/13/2017 - 09:10 a.m.

    The article describes Waldo as "tricky" because Waldo is very sneaky and a good hider which could be difficult to find on the page.

  • cheyl-orv
    10/13/2017 - 01:55 p.m.

    the article describes waldo as tricky because it is really hard to find him in the book.

  • AllidaA-ell
    10/13/2017 - 02:08 p.m.

    In the article they call Waldo tricky because sometimes you see him and just don't know it which is "tricky".I also think they said that Waldo is tricky because they said that waldo moves up and down and all around in the article which is crazy because when you find him on one page hes gone the next and you don't even know it.I also think they called Waldo tricky because sometimes in the book they look and they think found waldo because they find a white and red t-shirt bad then you see it isen't him.That's why I think they called Waldo tricky.

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