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

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

  • SophiaD-del1
    10/03/2017 - 05:12 p.m.

    Waldo is "tricky". He is shown is obvious in his place but all of the surrounding distractions cause difficulty when trying to find him.

  • WilliamF-del
    10/03/2017 - 05:33 p.m.

    This is a very interesting really helps me understand how the eye movements work

  • AkshayB-del
    10/03/2017 - 05:48 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo tricky because he is always around in the corner of peoples books to anywhere. He would hide anywhere where you want think of. It is basically a mind trick so you won't know. Its confusing and hard to find waldo anywhere

  • MarianaG-del
    10/03/2017 - 05:51 p.m.

    This article describes Waldo as tricky because he is difficult to find within the crowd of all the characters. He also is always hiding

  • JasminderK-del
    10/03/2017 - 06:04 p.m.

    This article was pretty interesting it explains how our eyes look for something & where we look first, Waldo being used for scientific research is pretty cool

  • ChloeT-del
    10/03/2017 - 06:15 p.m.

    The article describes Waldo as "tricky". In the process of visual search, searching for Waldo is very tricky and challenging. Even though it is very tricky, it is very fun and amusing. When the creators of Waldo create the background and the things around Waldo, they make those things look similar to Waldo to make it tricky. For example, Waldo wears red and white. So the things around Waldo will most likely be red and white. When Waldo is found, he is found doing something mischievous. These are reasons why the article describes Waldo as "tricky".

  • OlivierJ-del
    10/03/2017 - 06:57 p.m.

    This article is very interesting.It shows that even simple things such as where Waldo contain even a little bit of science.

  • EthanG-del1
    10/03/2017 - 07:31 p.m.

    Waldo is tricky since he is very hard to find in the crowd of people.

  • EmilyN-del1
    10/03/2017 - 07:32 p.m.

    I think it is amazing that Waldo can be used for scientific study. When I was younger it used to frustrate me but, now I know it was beneficial.

  • ChloeR-del
    10/03/2017 - 08:14 p.m.

    It is pretty nice that we can learn from things that are made for kids. I couldn't believe when I read that science was using "Where's Waldo" for an experiment. It's a very amazing article if I do say so myself! It describes "Where's Waldo as tricky because he is a small character hidden with a bunch of people that could be wearing the same color as him. You have to search hard which could provoke you.

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