- U preserves the inner product 〈 , 〉 of the Hilbert space, i.e., for all vectors x and y in the Hilbert space, , and
- U is surjective.
It is also equivalent to the seemingly weaker condition:
To see this, notice that U preserves the inner product implies U is an isometry (thus, a bounded linear operator). The fact that U has dense range ensures it has a bounded inverse U−1. It is clear that U−1 = U∗.
Thus, unitary operators are just automorphisms of Hilbert spaces, i.e., they preserve the structure (in this case, the linear space structure, the inner product, and hence the topology) of the space on which they act. The group of all unitary operators from a given Hilbert space H to itself is sometimes referred to as the Hilbert group of H, denoted Hilb(H).
The weaker condition U∗U = I defines an isometry. Another condition, U U∗ = I, defines a coisometry.
where I is the identity element.:55
- The identity function is trivially a unitary operator.
- Rotations in R2 are the simplest nontrivial example of unitary operators. Rotations do not change the length of a vector or the angle between 2 vectors. This example can be expanded to R3.
- On the vector space C of complex numbers, multiplication by a number of absolute value 1, that is, a number of the form ei θ for θ ∈ R, is a unitary operator. θ is referred to as a phase, and this multiplication is referred to as multiplication by a phase. Notice that the value of θ modulo 2π does not affect the result of the multiplication, and so the independent unitary operators on C are parametrized by a circle. The corresponding group, which, as a set, is the circle, is called U(1).
- More generally, unitary matrices are precisely the unitary operators on finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces, so the notion of a unitary operator is a generalization of the notion of a unitary matrix. Orthogonal matrices are the special case of unitary matrices in which all entries are real. They are the unitary operators on Rn.
- The bilateral shift on the sequence space indexed by the integers is unitary. In general, any operator in a Hilbert space which acts by shuffling around an orthonormal basis is unitary. In the finite dimensional case, such operators are the permutation matrices. The unilateral shift is an isometry; its conjugate is a coisometry.
- The Fourier operator is a unitary operator, i.e. the operator which performs the Fourier transform (with proper normalization). This follows from Parseval's theorem.
- Unitary operators are used in unitary representations.
The linearity requirement in the definition of a unitary operator can be dropped without changing the meaning because it can be derived from linearity and positive-definiteness of the scalar product:
- Analogously you obtain .
- The spectrum of a unitary operator U lies on the unit circle. That is, for any complex number λ in the spectrum, one has |λ|=1. This can be seen as a consequence of the spectral theorem for normal operators. By the theorem, U is unitarily equivalent to multiplication by a Borel-measurable f on L²(μ), for some finite measure space (X, μ). Now U U* = I implies |f(x)|² = 1 μ-a.e. This shows that the essential range of f, therefore the spectrum of U, lies on the unit circle.