Where’s Wally: The influence of visual salience on referring expression generation

Alasdair Clarke, Micha Elsner*, Hannah Rohde

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


Referring expression generation (REG) presents the converse problem to visual search: given a scene and a specified target, how does one generate a description which would allow somebody else to quickly and accurately locate the target?Previous work in psycholinguistics and natural language processing has failed to find an important and integrated role for vision in this task. That previous work, which relies largely on simple scenes, tends to treat vision as a pre-process for extracting feature categories that are relevant to disambiguation. However, the visual search literature suggests that some descriptions are better than others at enabling listeners to search efficiently within complex stimuli. This paper presents a study testing whether participants are sensitive to visual features that allow them to compose such “good” descriptions. Our results show that visual properties (salience, clutter, area, and distance) influence REG for targets embedded in images from the Where's Wally? books. Referring expressions for large targets are shorter than those for smaller targets, and expressions about targets in highly cluttered scenes use more words. We also find that participants are more likely to mention non-target landmarks that are large, salient, and in close proximity to the target. These findings identify a key role for visual salience in language production decisions and highlight the importance of scene complexity for REG.
Original languageEnglish
Article number00329
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2013


  • referring expression generation
  • visual salience
  • visual clutter


Dive into the research topics of 'Where’s Wally: The influence of visual salience on referring expression generation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this