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Run-length encoding (RLE) is a very simple form of data compression in which runs of data (that is, sequences in which the same data value occurs in many consecutive data elements) are stored as a single data value and count, rather than as the original run. This is most useful on data that contains many such runs: for example, simple graphic images such as icons, line drawings, and animations. It is not useful with files that don't have many runs as it could greatly increase the file size.
RLE may also be used to refer to an early graphics file format supported by CompuServe for compressing black and white images, but was widely supplanted by their later Graphics Interchange Format. RLE also refers to a little-used image format in Windows 3.x, with the extension rle, which is a Run Length Encoded Bitmap, used to compress the Windows 3.x startup screen.
For example, consider a screen containing plain black text on a solid white background. There will be many long runs of white pixels in the blank space, and many short runs of black pixels within the text. Let us take a hypothetical single scan line, with B representing a black pixel and W representing white:
If we apply the run-length encoding (RLE) data compression algorithm to the above hypothetical scan line, we get the following:
This is to be interpreted as twelve Ws, one B, twelve Ws, three Bs, etc.
The run-length code represents the original 67 characters in only 18. Of course, the actual format used for the storage of images is generally binary rather than ASCII characters like this, but the principle remains the same. Even binary data files can be compressed with this method; file format specifications often dictate repeated bytes in files as padding space. However, newer compression methods such as DEFLATE often use LZ77-based algorithms, a generalization of run-length encoding that can take advantage of runs of strings of characters (such as
Run-length encoding performs lossless data compression and is well suited to palette-based iconic images. It does not work well at all on continuous-tone images such as photographs, although JPEG uses it quite effectively on the coefficients that remain after transforming and quantizing image blocks.
Run-length encoding is used in fax machines (combined with other techniques into Modified Huffman coding). It is relatively efficient because most faxed documents are mostly white space, with occasional interruptions of black.
See also 
- Kolakoski sequence
- Look-and-say sequence
- Comparison of graphics file formats
- Golomb coding
- Modified Huffman coding
- Burrows-Wheeler transform
- Run Length Limited
- Bitmap index
- Forsyth–Edwards Notation, which uses run-length-encoding for empty spaces in chess positions.