Here's the Easiest Way to Find 'Waldo,' According to Science

Using algorithms, computer scientist Randal Olson proves that even storybook characters aren't safe from the all-seeing eye of Big Data.

by Emerson Rosenthal
09 February 2015, 4:30pm

A GIFfed Where's Waldo page, via. Thumbnail via

We've all found ourselves elbows deep and hours in, combing through cartoonized versions of Hollywood and the Wild West to locate that recognizable red-and-white striped hat, glasses, and walking stick combo that says he's been located. While a large part of the fun of the Where's Waldo? books exists in the lesser-hidden characters and situations you'll inevitably discover while seeking out the books' titular wanderer inside Martin Hadford's beloved illustrations, sometimes you just want to be able to put your finger down and say "There he is!" 

I've spent many an hour dividing Where's Waldo pages into quadrants in order to speed up the process of finding him, but if only there was a way to maximize the search by knowing where to look. Well, thanks to the work of computer scientist Randal S. Olson, now you can.

The quickest route to finding Waldo, courtesy of Randal Olson. Data maps via

After finding one popular strategy lacking, the computer scientist set out to use "every machine learning trick in my tool box to compute the optimal search strategy for finding Waldo." Using data that supplied the character's 68 locations in from each page of Hadford's seven Waldo books, Olson began to break the problem down using the traveling salesman problem. He quickly discovered that this approach might be biting off more than he could chew:

"Those 68 points can be arranged in ~2.48 x 1096 possible ways. To provide some context, that’s more possible arrangements than the number of atoms in the universe. That’s so many possible arrangements that even if finding Waldo became an international priority and the world banded together to dedicate the 8.25 million computing cores from the world’s 10 largest supercomputers to the job, it would still take ~9.53 x 1077years—about 6.35 x 1067x longer than the universe has existed—to exhaustively evaluate all possible combinations."

Instead, using something called a genetic algorithm, Olson found a near-perfect route to improve your hunting speed. For prospective Waldo-finders, Olson offers three lessons: 

  1. The bottom of the left page is a good place to start. If Waldo isn’t on the bottom half of the left page, then he’s probably not on the left page at all.

  2. The upper quarter of the right page is the next best place to look. Waldo seems to prefer to hide on the upper quarter of the right page.

  3. Next check the bottom right half of the right page. Waldo also has an aversion to the bottom left half of the right page. Don’t bother looking there until you’ve exhausted the other hot spots.

Ultimately, Olson still believes that, "barring a situation where someone puts a gun to your head and forces you to find Waldo faster than their colleague," the pleasure of locating Waldo is "in the journey, not the destination," it's still fascinating to think that even storybook characters can't hide from Big Data.  

Head over to Randal S. Olson's website to learn more about how he maximized finding Waldo.

Via VisualNews


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