Gray code

Gray code is a binary numeral system where two successive values differ in only one bit.

For example, the sequence of Gray codes for 3-bit numbers is: 000, 001, 011, 010, 110, 111, 101, 100, so $G(4) = 6$.

This code was invented by Frank Gray in 1953.

Finding Gray code

Let's look at the bits of number $n$ and the bits of number $G(n)$. Notice that $i$-th bit of $G(n)$ equals 1 only when $i$-th bit of $n$ equals 1 and $i + 1$-th bit equals 0 or the other way around ($i$-th bit equals 0 and $i + 1$-th bit equals 1). Thus, $G(n) = n \oplus (n >> 1)$:

int g (int n) {
    return n ^ (n >> 1);

Finding inverse Gray code

Given Gray code $g$, restore the original number $n$.

We will move from the most significant bits to the least significant ones (the least significant bit has index 1 and the most significant bit has index $k$). The relation between the bits $n_i$ of number $n$ and the bits $g_i$ of number $g$:

$$\begin{align} n_k &= g_k, \\ n_{k-1} &= g_{k-1} \oplus n_k = g_k \oplus g_{k-1}, \\ n_{k-2} &= g_{k-2} \oplus n_{k-1} = g_k \oplus g_{k-1} \oplus g_{k-2}, \\ n_{k-3} &= g_{k-3} \oplus n_{k-2} = g_k \oplus g_{k-1} \oplus g_{k-2} \oplus g_{k-3}, \\ \vdots \end{align}$$

The easiest way to write it in code is:

int rev_g (int g) {
  int n = 0;
  for (; g; g >>= 1)
    n ^= g;
  return n;

Practical applications

Gray codes have some useful applications, sometimes quite unexpected:

Practice Problems