Prerequisites: Heap, Binary Tree

Huffman codes are a popular means of lossless compression. The general idea is to assign binary codes to each character in a file. Compression consists of converting each character to it’s corresponding code (which is hopefully much shorter). The file is decompressed by preforming the process in reverse.

Before jumping right into Huffman codes, it’s advantageous to understand codes
in general. First, consider *fixed length codes*. A simplistic code for the
first four characters of the alphabet is shown below.

Symbol | Code |
---|---|

A | 00 |

B | 01 |

C | 10 |

D | 11 |

The string `ABCD`

in it’s uncompressed ASCII form is
`01000001010000100100001101000100`

(32 bits). It is thus compressed as
`00011011`

(8 bits). Decompressing is as easy as reading two bits at a time and
converting them to the corresponding letter.

Another type of code is a *variable length code*. As the name implies, each code
can have a different length. If shorter codes are used for the most frequently
used symbols, the resulting compressed message is much smaller. Consider the
code defined below.

Symbol | Code |
---|---|

A | 0 |

B | 01 |

C | 10 |

D | 1 |

The string `ABAD`

in ASCII is `01000001010000100100000101000100`

(32 bits). The
compressed form is a bit shorter than it’s fixed length equivalent: `00101`

(5
bits). There is one glaring problem with this code: it’s impossible to decode.
The first three characters `001`

could be decoded as either `AAD`

or `AB`

.

*Prefix-free codes* make variable length codes useable. The concept is that no
code is a prefix of another code. Consider the prefix-free code defined below.

Symbol | Code |
---|---|

A | 0 |

B | 10 |

C | 110 |

D | 111 |

Using this code, the string `ABAD`

is encoded as `0100111`

(7 bits). Decoding is
now possible by using a binary tree. Simply follow the links in the tree and the
first symbol encountered is the correct one.

The trick to creating an efficient prefix-free code is to assign the shortest codes to the most frequently used symbols and the longest codes to the least frequently used symbols. Consider the symbol distribution below.

Symbol | Code | Freq |
---|---|---|

A | 0 | 60% |

B | 10 | 25% |

C | 110 | 10% |

D | 111 | 5% |

To find the average bits per symbol, sum the product of each code length by its frequency as shown below.

The Huffman code algorithm produces a binary tree that results in the minimum average bits per symbol for a given distribution of symbols.

## Applications

- Geneticist calculate the frequencies of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts in human DNA to generate an efficient code
- MP3 encoding computes symbol frequencies before compression

## Asymptotic Complexity

$O(n\log n)$

## Pseudo Code

```
freqs = array of (character, frequency) tuples
H = min heap of (character, frequency) tuples, key=frequency
for each freq in freqs:
node
node->zero = NULL
node->one = NULL
node->frequency = freq->frequency
node->character = freq->character
H->insert node
while H->size > 0:
left = H->extract
right = h->extract
if(right == NULL):
return left
newNode
newNode->zero = left
newNode->one = right
newNode->frequency = left->frequency + right->frequency
newNode->character = NULL // Only leaf nodes get a character
H->insert newNode
```

## Source Code

Relevant Files:

Click here for build and run instructions