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 (19)
  • kirshaunm-orv
    10/13/2017 - 02:15 p.m.

    I love doing where's Waldo pages. I like it because it's very tricky, challenging. But now a days I can't find them anywhere.

  • kyzert-ris
    10/17/2017 - 09:10 a.m.

    It's easy to find Waldo, because he is in the place you least expect him.

  • Janaesja-bla
    10/19/2017 - 07:08 p.m.

    Thirty years ago, the first Where is Waldo book was ever made. The science behind this is very intresting. First scientists had people try to search for Waldo on one page. Scientist paid attention to the eye movement of this person to see exactly what happens when the eyes are tracking what or who everyday objects are.

  • Neveahh-orv
    10/20/2017 - 11:45 a.m.

    What is Wald is it a type of animal or is it a plant. I think that Wald is amazing to me.

  • kalobp-lew
    11/07/2017 - 11:54 a.m.

    I think it is very interesting because you never know will he will be next,people always say it is very rare to find him well I think if you spent time looking for him you would find him but no one ever does they just lye and say they couldn't find him but overall great story.

  • DannyC-kor
    11/08/2017 - 09:56 a.m.

    .

  • JasonH-tur
    11/28/2017 - 11:46 a.m.

    Can you find Waldo?

  • ellyb-orv
    12/07/2017 - 11:38 a.m.

    I like doing where's Waldo pages. they can be very hard sometimes because I could either find it in 30 seconds or 10 minutes.

  • Maggieg-bru2
    1/06/2018 - 10:39 a.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky because he is famous for hiding in two page pictures. The article states that Waldo hides in numerous places that scientists are trying to figure out.

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