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 installment 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, where he’s known as Charlie. In Bulgaria, he’s called Uoli. In Croatia he’s Jura and in Iceland he’s Valli. Waldo/Wally/etc is even found 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, according Miguel P. Eckstein. He's a cognitive psychologist. The technical term for "looking for something with your eyes" is visual search.

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. 

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. 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 righ

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


COMMENTS (53)
  • CadenceG-del
    10/02/2017 - 08:10 p.m.

    The study behind the Where’s Waldo is very fascinating. I never would have thought as this as science. It was just something that I would do when I was bored. It was fun yet aggravating to find him. It would always mess with my head.

  • NathalyP-del
    10/02/2017 - 09:03 p.m.

    I think that this article is very interesting. I never knew that Waldo was used for scientific studies too. I used to love to find Waldo when I was a kid. Not only has Waldo been fun for kids but also help improve studies.

  • AlejandraC-del
    10/02/2017 - 09:10 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as tricky since he is kind of tricking your mind. He would be hiding in places you wouldn't think to look for him and in an area that makes him hard to find. While Waldo is hard to find, I find myself interested and somewhat fascinated and intrigued by the fact that once the eye finds Waldo it gains a sense of happiness almost; the rate of "microsaccades", dramatically increased when the experiment participants found Waldo.

  • TiffanyW-del
    10/02/2017 - 09:19 p.m.

    I found this article very interesting. I think this is a very smart, clever, wise, and fun idea. It would be really cool if Americans got to do this too; just something to get our minds off what's happening in the world right now.

  • TiffanyW-del
    10/02/2017 - 09:21 p.m.

    Waldo is very tricky and popular. It gets frustrating sometimes because you have to focus on so many different things.

  • GiannaC-del
    10/02/2017 - 10:52 p.m.

    Where’s Waldo has always been a childhood favorite that we have all played. We have always thought of Waldo as just a game where you simply look for the guy in the red-white stripped shirt and that’s it. But, what we don’t realize is there is actually a deeper scientific meaning to what you are doing when you look for him. It is a representation of you in the real world, especially in looking for things. Waldo is known as a very tricky game. Why? Because he is,simply just hard to find. He is hid in places where you wouldn’t even notice he was even there, until you’ve looked at it a couple times.

  • NatalieH-del
    10/03/2017 - 04:41 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as " tricky " because he is hidden in a crowd of many and takes a long time to find.

  • SarahT-del
    10/03/2017 - 04:44 p.m.

    Cool that fictional books could teach something new to scientists.
    He's tricky to find because most people get easily upset when they cant find someone so popular yet they are hard to look for when hes all over the place.

  • GregoryM-del
    10/03/2017 - 04:58 p.m.

    You need to use fixational eye movements, which takes more brain power than regular sight. Waldo is never hidden at any of the corners which makes it harder to spot him.That is what makes it a tricky task.

  • AnnabelleA-del
    10/03/2017 - 05:11 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as "tricky" because it is often hard for us to find Waldo since we have short attention spans. So, it is tricky and frustrating to have to find Waldo for some people. I found the article really fun and interesting. It isn't your typical article. I think its cool that scientists can learn important stuff from a game!

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