A table of numbers that apply a color transform to an image.

In computer science, a lookup table is an array that replaces runtime computation with a simpler array indexing operation. The savings in terms of processing time can be significant, since retrieving a value from memory is often faster than undergoing an "expensive" computation or input/output operation. The tables may be precalculated and stored in static program storage, calculated (or "pre-fetched") as part of a program's initialization phase (memoization), or even stored in hardware in application-specific platforms. Lookup tables are also used extensively to validate input values by matching against a list of valid (or invalid) items in an array and, in some programming languages, may include pointer functions (or offsets to labels) to process the matching input. FPGAs also make extensive use of reconfigurable, hardware-implemented, lookup tables to provide programmable hardware functionality.

Before the advent of computers, lookup tables of values were used to speed up hand calculations of complex functions, such as in trigonometry, logarithms, and statistical density functions.

In ancient (499 AD) India, Aryabhata created one of the first sine tables, which he encoded in a Sanskrit-letter-based number system. In 493 AD, Victorius of Aquitaine wrote a 98-column multiplication table which gave (in Roman numerals) the product of every number from 2 to 50 times and the rows were "a list of numbers starting with one thousand, descending by hundreds to one hundred, then descending by tens to ten, then by ones to one, and then the fractions down to 1/144" Modern school children are often taught to memorize "times tables" to avoid calculations of the most commonly used numbers (up to 9 x 9 or 12 x 12).

Early in the history of computers, input/output operations were particularly slow – even in comparison to processor speeds of the time. It made sense to reduce expensive read operations by a form of manual caching by creating either static lookup tables (embedded in the program) or dynamic prefetched arrays to contain only the most commonly occurring data items. Despite the introduction of systemwide caching that now automates this process, application level lookup tables can still improve performance for data items that rarely, if ever, change.

Lookup tables were one of the earliest functionalities implemented in computer spreadsheets, with the initial version of VisiCalc (1979) including a LOOKUP function among its original 20 functions. This has been followed by subsequent spreadsheets, such as Microsoft Excel, and complemented by specialized VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP functions to simplify lookup in a vertical or horizontal table.

Red (A), Green (B), Blue (C) 16 bit Look Up Table file sample. (Lines 14 to 65524 not shown)

In data analysis applications, such as image processing, a lookup table (LUT) is used to transform the input data into a more desirable output format. For example, a grayscale picture of the planet Saturn will be transformed into a color image to emphasize the differences in its rings.

A classic example of reducing run-time computations using lookup tables is to obtain the result of a trigonometry calculation, such as the sine of a value. Calculating trigonometric functions can substantially slow a computing application. The same application can finish much sooner when it first precalculates the sine of a number of values, for example for each whole number of degrees (The table can be defined as static variables at compile time, reducing repeated run time costs). When the program requires the sine of a value, it can use the lookup table to retrieve the closest sine value from a memory address, and may also take the step of interpolating to the sine of the desired value, instead of calculating by mathematical formula. Lookup tables are thus used by mathematics co-processors in computer systems. An error in a lookup table was responsible for Intel's infamous floating-point divide bug.

Functions of a single variable (such as sine and cosine) may be implemented by a simple array. Functions involving two or more variables require multidimensional array indexing techniques. The latter case may thus employ a two-dimensional array of power to replace a function to calculate xy for a limited range of x and y values. Functions that have more than one result may be implemented with lookup tables that are arrays of structures.

As mentioned, there are intermediate solutions that use tables in combination with a small amount of computation, often using interpolation. Pre-calculation combined with interpolation can produce higher accuracy for values that fall between two precomputed values. This technique requires slightly more time to be performed but can greatly enhance accuracy in applications that require the higher accuracy. Depending on the values being precomputed, pre-computation with interpolation can also be used to shrink the lookup table size while maintaining accuracy.

In image processing, lookup tables are often called LUTs (or 3DLUT), and give an output value for each of a range of index values. One common LUT, called the colormap or palette, is used to determine the colors and intensity values with which a particular image will be displayed. In computed tomography, "windowing" refers to a related concept for determining how to display the intensity of measured radiation.

While often effective, employing a lookup table may nevertheless result in a severe penalty if the computation that the LUT replaces is relatively simple. Memory retrieval time and the complexity of memory requirements can increase application operation time and system complexity relative to what would be required by straight formula computation. The possibility of polluting the cache may also become a problem. Table accesses for large tables will almost certainly cause a cache miss. This phenomenon is increasingly becoming an issue as processors outpace memory. A similar issue appears in rematerialization, a compiler optimization. In some environments, such as the Java programming language, table lookups can be even more expensive due to mandatory bounds-checking involving an additional comparison and branch for each lookup.

There are two fundamental limitations on when it is possible to construct a lookup table for a required operation. One is the amount of memory that is available: one cannot construct a lookup table larger than the space available for the table, although it is possible to construct disk-based lookup tables at the expense of lookup time. The other is the time required to compute the table values in the first instance; although this usually needs to be done only once, if it takes a prohibitively long time, it may make the use of a lookup table an inappropriate solution. As previously stated however, tables can be statically defined in many cases.

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