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The Science Behind Our Search for Waldo

‘Where’s Waldo’ was first published on this day 30 years ago

A record-breaking gathering of Waldo (known across the pond as 'Wally') impersonators in Dublin, Ireland, in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

There’s more in the question “Where’s Waldo?” than you might think.

Thirty years ago today, the first installment in the Waldo franchise was published–in Britain, where he’s actually known as Wally rather than Waldo. Since 1987, the sneaky character has become quite the globetrotter. He’s visited France, where he’s known as Charlie, and Bulgaria, where he’s called Uoli. In Croatia he’s Jura and in Iceland he’s Valli.  Waldo/Wally/etc is even found on Facebook, where he’s 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: visual search.

Humans use visual search (the technical term for "looking for something with your eyes") constantly, writes cognitive psychologist Miguel P. Eckstein. 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. Using 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 right half.  But keep in mind: Waldo’s a tricky little guy, so he could be almost anywhere.

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