Representation of a line in the polar coordinate system

Recently, I read a tutorial about Hough line transform at the OpenCV tutorials. It is a technique to find lines in an image using a parameter space. As explained in the tutorial, for this it is necessary to use the polar coordinate system. In the commonly used Cartesian coordinate system, a line would be represented by \(y=mx+b\). In the polar coordinate system on the other hand, a line is represented by

\begin{equation} y=-\frac{\cos{\theta}}{\sin{\theta}}x + \frac{\rho}{\sin{\theta}}. \label{eq:PolarCoordinateSystem_LineRepresentation} \end{equation}

This article tries to explain the relation between these two forms.

In \eqref{eq:PolarCoordinateSystem_LineRepresentation} there are two new parameters: radius \(\rho\) and angle \(\theta\) as also depicted in the following figure. \(\rho\) is the length of a vector which always starts at the pole \((0,0)\) (analogous term to the origin in the Cartesian coordinate system) and ends at the line (orange in the figure) so that \(\rho\) will be orthogonal to the line. This is important because otherwise the following conclusions wouldn't work.

Illustration of the line polar coordinate system
Illustration of a line in the polar coordinate system with the radius \(\rho\) and angle \(\theta\).

So, first start with the \(y\)-intercept \(b=\frac{\rho}{\sin{\theta}}\). Note that the angle \(\theta\) comes up twice: between the \(x\)-axis and the \(\rho\) vector plus between the \(y\)-axis and the blue line (on the right side). We will use trigonometrical functions to calculate the \(y\)-intercept. This is simply done by using the \(\sin\)-function

\begin{equation*} \begin{split} \sin{\theta} &= \frac{\text{opposite}}{\text{hypotenuse}} \\ \sin{\theta} &= \frac{\rho}{b} \\ b &= \frac{\rho}{\sin{\theta}} \end{split} \end{equation*}

and that is exactly what the equation said for the \(y\)-intercept.

Now it is time for the slope \(m=-\frac{\cos{\theta}}{\sin{\theta}}\). For this, the relation

\begin{equation*} m = \tan{\alpha} \end{equation*}

is needed, where \(\alpha\) is the slope angle of the line. \(\alpha\) can be calculated by using our known \(\theta\) angle:

\begin{equation*} \alpha = 180^{\circ} - (180^{\circ} - 90^{\circ} - \theta) = 90^{\circ} + \theta. \end{equation*}

Now we have \(m=\tan{\left(90^{\circ} + \theta\right)}\), which is equivalent to \(m=\frac{\sin{\left(90^{\circ} + \theta\right)}}{\cos{\left(90^{\circ} + \theta\right)}}\). Because of \(\sin{x}=\cos{\left(90^{\circ}-x\right)}\) and \(\cos{x}=\sin{\left(90^{\circ}-x\right)}\) we can do a little bit of rewriting

\begin{equation*} m=\frac {\cos\left({90^{\circ} - (90^{\circ} + \theta)}\right)} {\sin\left({90^{\circ} - (90^{\circ} + \theta}\right))} = \frac {\cos\left({-\theta}\right)} {\sin\left({-\theta}\right)} = \frac {\cos\left({\theta}\right)} {-\sin\left({\theta}\right)} = -\frac {\cos\left({\theta}\right)} {\sin\left({\theta}\right)} \end{equation*}

and we have exactly the form we need. In the last step, I used the property that \(\sin(x) = -\sin(-x)\) is an odd and \(\cos(x) = \cos(-x)\) an even function.