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 (15)
  • 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.

  • aspenw-har
    10/02/2017 - 03:44 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky because it is really hard to find him sometimes and you have to look really hard because he is sneaky sometimes.

  • oliviad-har1
    10/02/2017 - 09:13 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky. The author explains him this way because Waldo is very tough to find. In paragraph 7 it the author states that,"“Results showed that the rate of microsaccades+ - tiny, jerk-like fixational eye movements - dramatically increased when participants found Waldo". When your eye has fixational eye movements that don't happen frequently it might be harder to find Waldo. This is the reason why the author describes Waldo as tricky to find.

  • 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

  • mady-har1
    10/04/2017 - 04:53 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky because it is hard to find him when he is hiding. Also Waldo has a hiding pattern and is never in the same spot. I read in the article " 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." It is telling us about how he has his pattern but even if you know his pattern he is still hard to find.

  • natalier-har1
    10/04/2017 - 05:36 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as “tricky” because there is no efficient way to find the location of Waldo. The author starts off by stating the most optimized way to find Waldo, and finishes with, “But here is something to keep in mind. Waldo’s a tricky little guy, so he could be almost anywhere,” I hope that Waldo continues to entertain us with his untraceable ways.

  • 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??

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