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In the mathematical subfield of numerical analysis, interpolation is a method of constructing new data points within the range of a discrete set of known data points.

In engineering and science one often has a number of data points, as obtained by sampling or experimentation, and tries to construct a function which closely fits those data points. This is called curve fitting or regression analysis. Interpolation is a specific case of curve fitting, in which the function must go exactly through the data points.

A different problem which is closely related to interpolation is the approximation of a complicated function by a simple function. Suppose we know the function but it is too complex to evaluate efficiently. Then we could pick a few known data points from the complicated function, creating a lookup table, and try to interpolate those data points to construct a simpler function. Of course, when using the simple function to calculate new data points we usually do not receive the same result as when using the original function, but depending on the problem domain and the interpolation method used the gain in simplicity might offset the error.

It should be mentioned that there is another very different kind of interpolation in mathematics, namely the "interpolation of operators". The classical results about interpolation of operators are the Riesz-Thorin theorem and the Marcinkiewicz theorem. There also are many other subsequent results.

An interpolation of a finite set of points on an epitrochoid. Points through which curve is splined are red; the blue curve connecting them is interpolation.


For example, suppose we have a table like this, which gives some values of an unknown function f.

Plot of the data points as given in the table.
x f(x)
0 0
1 0 . 8415
2 0 . 9093
3 0 . 1411
4 −0 . 7568
5 −0 . 9589
6 −0 . 2794

Interpolation provides a means of estimating the function at intermediate points, such as x = 2.5.

There are many different interpolation methods, some of which are described below. Some of the concerns to take into account when choosing an appropriate algorithm are: How accurate is the method? How expensive is it? How smooth is the interpolant? How many data points are needed?

Piecewise constant interpolation

File:Piecewise constant.svg

The simplest interpolation method is to locate the nearest data value, and assign the same value. In one dimension, there are seldom good reasons to choose this one over linear interpolation, which is almost as cheap, but in higher dimensions, in multivariate interpolation, this can be a favourable choice for its speed and simplicity.

Linear interpolation

Plot of the data with linear interpolation superimposed

One of the simplest methods is linear interpolation (sometimes known as lerp). Consider the above example of determining f(2.5). Since 2.5 is midway between 2 and 3, it is reasonable to take f(2.5) midway between f(2) = 0.9093 and f(3) = 0.1411, which yields 0.5252.

Generally, linear interpolation takes two data points, say (xa,ya) and (xb,yb), and the interpolant is given by:

 y = y_a + (x-x_a)\frac{(y_b-y_a)}{(x_b-x_a)} at the point (x,y)

Linear interpolation is quick and easy, but it is not very precise. Another disadvantage is that the interpolant is not differentiable at the point xk.

The following error estimate shows that linear interpolation is not very precise. Denote the function which we want to interpolate by g, and suppose that x lies between xa and xb and that g is twice continuously differentiable. Then the linear interpolation error is

 |f(x)-g(x)| \le C(x_b-x_a)^2 \quad\mbox{where}\quad C = \frac18 \max_{y\in[x_a,x_b]} |g''(y)|.

In words, the error is proportional to the square of the distance between the data points. The error of some other methods, including polynomial interpolation and spline interpolation (described below), is proportional to higher powers of the distance between the data points. These methods also produce smoother interpolants.

Polynomial interpolation

Plot of the data with polynomial interpolation applied

Polynomial interpolation is a generalization of linear interpolation. Note that the linear interpolant is a linear function. We now replace this interpolant by a polynomial of higher degree.

Consider again the problem given above. The following sixth degree polynomial goes through all the seven points:

 f(x) = -0.0001521 x^6 - 0.003130 x^5 + 0.07321 x^4 - 0.3577 x^3 + 0.2255 x^2 + 0.9038 x\,

Substituting x = 2.5, we find that f(2.5) = 0.5965.

Generally, if we have n data points, there is exactly one polynomial of degree at most n−1 going through all the data points. The interpolation error is proportional to the distance between the data points to the power n. Furthermore, the interpolant is a polynomial and thus infinitely differentiable. So, we see that polynomial interpolation solves all the problems of linear interpolation.

However, polynomial interpolation also has some disadvantages. Calculating the interpolating polynomial is computationally expensive (see computational complexity) compared to linear interpolation. Furthermore, polynomial interpolation may not be so exact after all, especially at the end points (see Runge's phenomenon). These disadvantages can be avoided by using spline interpolation.

Spline interpolation

Plot of the data with Spline interpolation applied

Remember that linear interpolation uses a linear function for each of intervals [xk,xk+1]. Spline interpolation uses low-degree polynomials in each of the intervals, and chooses the polynomial pieces such that they fit smoothly together. The resulting function is called a spline.

For instance, the natural cubic spline is piecewise cubic and twice continuously differentiable. Furthermore, its second derivative is zero at the end points. The natural cubic spline interpolating the points in the table above is given by

 f(x) = \left\{ \begin{matrix}
-0.1522 x^3 + 0.9937 x, & \mbox{if } x \in [0,1], \\
-0.01258 x^3 - 0.4189 x^2 + 1.4126 x - 0.1396, & \mbox{if } x \in [1,2], \\
0.1403 x^3 - 1.3359 x^2 + 3.2467 x - 1.3623, & \mbox{if } x \in [2,3], \\
0.1579 x^3 - 1.4945 x^2 + 3.7225 x - 1.8381, & \mbox{if } x \in [3,4], \\
0.05375 x^3 -0.2450 x^2 - 1.2756 x + 4.8259, & \mbox{if } x \in [4,5], \\
-0.1871 x^3 + 3.3673 x^2 - 19.3370 x + 34.9282, & \mbox{if } x \in [5,6]. \\
\end{matrix} \right.

In this case we get f(2.5)=0.5972.

Like polynomial interpolation, spline interpolation incurs a smaller error than linear interpolation and the interpolant is smoother. However, the interpolant is easier to evaluate than the high-degree polynomials used in polynomial interpolation. It also does not suffer from Runge's phenomenon.

Interpolation via Gaussian processes

Gaussian process is a powerful non-linear interpolation tool. Many popular interpolation tools are actually equivalent to particular Gaussian processes. Gaussian processes can be used not only for fitting an interpolant that passes exactly through the given data points but also for regression, i.e. for fitting a curve through noisy data. In the geostatistics community Gaussian process regression is also known as Kriging.

IDW (Inverse Distance Weighting)

Example of the IDW process

One of the most commonly used techniques for interpolation of scatter points is IDW (Inverse Distance Weighting). IDW interpolation estimates cell values in a raster from a set of sample points that have been weighted so that the farther a sampled point is from the cell being evaluated, the less weight it has in the calculation of the cell's value[1] This process is based on the assumption that things that are close to one another are more alike than those that are farther apart. In addition to measuring Euclidean distance, a typical IDW formula involves a weighting power (p) that allows the user to determine how quickly the weight loses effect away from observation points.[2] A higher value of p indicates that the weight has less effect away from observation points. The use of IDW is useful in interpolation models as well as in the creation of isometric maps. For instance, a map modeling water flow from a city sidewalk relies on connecting points of equal value. Using IDW in a GIS or in AutoCAD would allow for greater accuracy in terms of connecting these points.

Other forms of interpolation

Other forms of interpolation can be constructed by picking a different class of interpolants. For instance, rational interpolation is interpolation by rational functions, and trigonometric interpolation is interpolation by trigonometric polynomials. The discrete Fourier transform is a special case of trigonometric interpolation. Another possibility is to use wavelets.

The Whittaker–Shannon interpolation formula can be used if the number of data points is infinite.

Multivariate interpolation is the interpolation of functions of more than one variable. Methods include bilinear interpolation and bicubic interpolation in two dimensions, and trilinear interpolation in three dimensions.

Sometimes, we know not only the value of the function that we want to interpolate, at some points, but also its derivative. This leads to Hermite interpolation problems.

One automated interpolating method commonly used to create Isarithmic maps for true point data is the " Inverse Distance method", which follows a relatively simple process where a grid is drawn on top of the control points to estimate values at each grid point. This estimation allows a proper interpolation of those grid points and later, the creation of contour lines. The term inverse-distance is used because control points are weighted as an inverse function of their distance from grid points, therefore control points near a grid point are weighted more than those far away. One issue with this technique is that it cannot account for certain trends that come with the data itself. The value estimation at grid points can be obtained as follows:


Related concepts

The term extrapolation is used if we want to find data points outside the range of known data points.

In curve fitting problems, the constraint that the interpolant has to go exactly through the data points is relaxed. It is only required to approach the data points as closely as possible (within some other constraints). This requires parameterizing the potential interpolants and having some way of measuring the error. In the simplest case this leads to least squares approximation.

Approximation theory studies how to find the best approximation to a given function by another function from some predetermined class, and how good this approximation is. This clearly yields a bound on how well the interpolant can approximate the unknown function.


  1. "Inverse Distance Weighted Interpolation." GIS Dictionary. ESRI. Web. 30 Oct. 2011. <>.
  2. Roberts, A., Sheley, R., & Lawrence, R. (2004). Using sampling and inverse distance weighted modeling for mapping invasive plants. Western North American Naturalist, 64(3). Retrieved from

External links

  • DotPlacer applet : Applet showing various interpolation methods, with movable points
  • Online curve and surface fitting application, with both 2D spline curves and 3D spline surfaces