Signals, the basics

Published May 19, 2022  -  By Marco Garosi

Signals are function that map one or more input to an output. One-dimensional signals are those that describe the evolution of a system over time — in fact, the input variable is often the time, tt. Two-dimensional signals are those that describe the value of a function in a certain spot — they are often used to represent images and they take two values, xx and yy, which are the pixel coordinates.

Of course, there are many more signals and they can describe different things. However, in the context of Image and Signal Processing, these are the two most important kinds of signal.

Mathematical functions

Mathematical functions are usually described as fRRf \longrightarrow \R \to \R, which basically means that function ff takes a real value (value in R\R) and outputs another real value.

Functions have so many properties that covering all of them here would be an understatement. They have, nonetheless, two important properties that we should not forget:

  • they can be even. A function is said to be even if f(t)=f(t)f(t) = f(-t);
  • they can be odd. A function is said to be odd if f(t)=f(t)f(t) = -f(-t).


Some signals are periodic, which means that they repeat over time. The two basic periodic signals are:

  • f(t)=cos2πμ0tf(t) = \cos 2 \pi \mu_0 t
  • f(t)=sin2πμ0tf(t) = \sin 2 \pi \mu_0 t

Variable μ0\mu_0 is a frequency — indeed it is measured in Hertz (Hz, which is [1/s] or [s1][1/s] \text{ or } [s^{-1}]). μ0=1/T0\mu_0 = 1/T_0, where T0T_0 is the time (measured in seconds) taken to make a full cycle.

We call 2πμ0=2πT0=ω02 \pi \mu_0 = \frac{2 \pi}{T_0} = \omega_0 the pulsation or, better, the angular velocity.

Signals can also be translated. It is possible to delay them by subtracting some quantity from the input varialbe. f(t)f(tτ)f(t) \rightarrow f(t - \tau) is shifted to the right: it starts later than f(t)f(t); f(t)f(t+τ)f(t) \rightarrow f(t + \tau) is shifted to the left: it starts before earlier than f(t)f(t).

Common signals

Some common signals are presented afterwards.

Box Signal

Π(x)={1if 12x120otherwise \Pi(x) = \begin{cases} 1 &\text{if } -\frac{1}{2} \le x \le \frac{1}{2} \\ 0 &\text{otherwise} \end{cases}

Box Signal

Generalized Box Signal

AΠ(xb)={Aif b2xb20otherwise A \Pi(\frac{x}{b}) = \begin{cases} A &\text{if } -\frac{b}{2} \le x \le \frac{b}{2} \\ 0 &\text{otherwise} \end{cases}

Generalized Box Signal

Dirac’s Delta Signal (impulse)

δ(x)=limb1bΠxb \delta(x) = \lim_{b \to \infty} \frac{1}{b} \Pi \frac{x}{b}

with the constraint that
δ(x)dx=1 \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} \delta(x) dx = 1

Dirac’s Delta is thus:

δ(x)={if x=00otherwise \delta(x) = \begin{cases} \infty &\text{if } x = 0 \\ 0 &\text{otherwise} \end{cases}

Dirac's Delta Signal (impulse)

Triangle Signal

tri(x)={1xif x<1    1<x<10otherwise tri(x) = \begin{cases} 1 - |x| &\text{if } |x| \lt 1 \iff -1 \lt x \lt 1 \\ 0 &\text{otherwise} \end{cases}

Triangle Signal

Sign Signal

sgn(x)={1if x>00if x=01if x<0 sgn(x) = \begin{cases} 1 &\text{if } x \gt 0 \\ 0 &\text{if } x = 0 \\ -1 &\text{if } x \lt 0 \end{cases}

Triangle Signal

Step Signal

tri(x)={0if x<01if x0 tri(x) = \begin{cases} 0 &\text{if } x \lt 0 \\ 1 &\text{if } x \ge 0 \end{cases}

Step Signal

Sinc Signal

sinc(t)=sinπtπt \text{sinc}(t) = \frac{\sin \pi t}{\pi t}

Sinc Signal

It intersects the x-axis in t=±1,2,3,t = \pm 1, 2, 3, \dots and limtsinc(t)=0\lim_{t \to \infty} \text{sinc}(t) = 0.
Sampling property

The impulse has a great property, known as the “sampling property”. It states that:

f(x)δ(xx0)dx=f(x0) \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} f(x) \delta(x - x_0) dx = f(x_0)

Sampling property

This means that if we place the δ\delta signal at some point in time ( x0x_0) and multiply it by any other signal ff, what we get is the so-called sampling of signal ff at time x0x_0. This property — which may look pretty complex and hard to understand — is just the formal way of representing the behaviour of two things we use everyday: microphones and cameras.

Microphones and cameras are indeed based on sampling: they sample signals from the surroundings (sounds and photons, respectively).

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