Optimal Warping Paths are unique for almost every pair of Time Series

by   Brijnesh J. Jain, et al.

An optimal warping path between two time series is generally not unique. The size and form of the set of pairs of time series with non-unique optimal warping path is unknown. This article shows that optimal warping paths are unique for almost every pair of time series in a measure-theoretic sense. All pairs of time series with non-unique optimal warping path form a negligible set and are geometrically the union of zero sets of quadratic forms. The result is useful for analyzing and understanding adaptive learning methods in dynamic time warping spaces.



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1 Introduction

1.1 Dynamic time warping

Time series such as audio, video, and other sensory signals represent a collection of time-dependent values that may vary in speed (see Fig. 1). Since the Euclidean distance is sensitive to such variations, its application to time series related data mining tasks may give unsatisfactory results [6, 8, 24]. Consequently, the preferred approaches to compare time series apply elastic transformations that filter out the variations in speed. Among various techniques, one of the most common elastic transformation is dynamic time warping (DTW) [20].

Figure 1: Variations in speed and their implications for comparing two time series shown in blue and yellow. Both time series are similar in shape but differ in speed along their flat regions. Plot (a): The Euclidean distance warps the -th points of both time series onto one another as shown by the gray lines. Since the Euclidean warping is sensitive to variations in speed the shapes are not preserved and both peaks are aligned to points in flat regions. Plot (c): Euclidean warping leaves the time series unchanged and results in a large dissimilarity score as indicated by the gray shaded area. Plot (b): An optimal warping that preserves the shape of both time series. Double arrows indicate segments stretched by dynamic time warping. Plot (d): Warped time series obtained by the optimal warping in (b). The left flat segment of the yellow and the right flat segment of the blue time series have been stretched to align both time series. The resulting dissimilarity is zero and better reflects the similarity in shape than the Euclidean distance.

Dynamic time warping is based on the concept of warping path. A warping path determines how to stretch two given time series and to warped time series and under certain constraints. The cost of warping and along warping path measures how dissimilar the warped time series and are. There are exponential many different warping paths [1] each of which determines the cost of warping time series and . An optimal warping path of and is a warping path with minimum cost. Optimal warping paths exist but are not unique in general (see Fig. 2).

1.2 The problem of non-uniqueness

Recent research is directed towards extending standard statistical concepts and machine learning methods to time series spaces endowed with the DTW distance. Examples include time series averaging

[3, 5, 16, 17, 21], k-means clustering [10, 18, 22]

, self-organizing maps


, learning vector quantization

[23, 12]

, and warped-linear classifiers

[11, 13].

The lowest common denominator of these approaches is that they repeatedly update one or more parameter time series. In addition, update directions are based on optimal warping paths such that the following properties hold:

  • If an optimal warping path is unique, then the update direction is well-defined.

  • If an optimal warping path is non-unique, then there are several update directions.

Non-uniqueness of optimal warping paths complicates the algorithmic design of learning methods in DTW spaces and their theoretical analysis. In some situations, non-uniqueness may result in adverse effects. For example, repulsive updating in learning vector quantization finds a theoretical justification only in cases where the corresponding optimal warping path is unique [12].

Given the problems caused by non-uniqueness, it is desirable that optimal warping paths are unique almost everywhere. In this case, non-unique optimal warping paths occur exceptionally and are easier to handle as we will shortly. Therefore, we are interested in how prevalent unique optimal warping paths are.

1.3 Almost everywhere

The colloquial term “almost everywhere” has a precise measure-theoretic meaning. A measure quantifies the size of a set. It generalizes the concepts of length, area, and volume of a solid body defined in one, two, and three dimensions, respectively. The term “almost everywhere” finds its roots in the notion of a “negligible set”. Negligible sets are sets contained in a set of measure zero. For example, the function

is discontinuous on the negligible set with measure zero. We say, function is continuous almost everywhere, because the set where is not continuous is negligible. More generally, a property is said to be true almost everywhere if the set where is false is negligible. The property that an optimal warping is unique almost everywhere means that the set of all pairs of time series with non-unique optimal warping path is negligible.

When working in a measure space, a negligible set contains the exceptional cases we can handle or even do not care about and often ignore. For example, we do not care about the behavior of the above function on its negligible set when computing its Lebesgue integral over . Another example is that cost functions of some machine learning methods in Euclidean spaces such as k-means or learning vector quantization are non-differentiable on a negligible set. In such cases, it is common practice to ignore such points or to resort to subgradient methods.

1.4 Contributions

Consider the following property on the set of pairs of time series of length and : The pair of time series and satisfies if there are two different (not necessarily optimal) warping paths between and with identical costs. Under the assumption of a squared error local cost function, the main result of this article is Theorem 1:

Property is negligible on .

Direct consequences of Theorem 1 are (i) optimal warping paths are unique almost everywhere, and (ii) property holds on the union of exponentially many zero sets of quadratic forms. The results hold for uni- as well as multivariate time series.

An implication of non-unique optimal warping paths is that adverse effects in learning are exceptional cases that can be safely handled. For example, learning amounts in (stochastic) gradient descent update rules almost everywhere.

Figure 2: Example of non-unique warping paths (see Section 2.1 for definitions). Section (a) Time series and . (b) Local cost matrix with elements . (c) Accumulated cost obtained by dynamic programming [20] gives the DTW distance . The gray shaded cells show two different optimal warping paths. (d) Alignments of and by the two different optimal warping paths.

2 Background

This section first introduces warping paths and then defines the notions of negligible and almost everywhere from measure theory.

2.1 Time Series and Warping Paths

We first define time series. Let denote the -dimensional Euclidean space. A -variate time series of length is a sequence consisting of elements . By we denote the set of all time series of length with elements from .

Next, we describe warping paths. Let , where . An ()-lattice is a set of the form . A warping path in lattice is a sequence of points such that

  1. and

  2. for all .

The first condition is called boundary condition and the second one is the step condition.

By we denote the set of all warping paths in . A warping path departs at the upper left corner and ends at the lower right corner of the lattice. Only east , south , and southeast steps are allowed to move from a given point to the next point for all .

Finally, we introduce optimal warping paths. A warping path defines an alignment (warping) between time series and by relating elements and if . The cost of aligning time series and along warping path is defined by

where denotes the Euclidean norm on . A warping path between and is optimal if

By we denote the set of all optimal warping paths between time series and . The DTW distance is defined by

is the DTW distance. Observe that for all .

2.2 Measure-Theoretic Concepts

We introduce the necessary measure-theoretic concepts to define the notions of negligible and almost everywhere. For details, we refer to [9].

One issue in measure theory is that not every subset of a given set is measurable. A family of measurable subsets of a set is called -algebra in . A measure is a function that assigns a non-negative value to every measurable subset of such that certain conditions are satisfied. To introduce these concepts formally, we assume that denotes the power set of a set , that is the set of all subsets of . A system is called a -algebra in if it has the following properties:

  1. implies

  2. implies .

A measure on is a function that satisfies the following properties:

  1. for all

  2. For a countable collection of disjoint sets , we have

A triple consisting of a set , a -algebra in and a measure on is called a measure space. The Borel-algebra in is the -algebra generated by the open sets of . The Lebesgue-measure on generalizes the concept of -volume of a box in . The triple is called Borel-Lebesgue measure space.

Let be a measure space, where is a set, is a -algebra in , and is a measure defined on . A set is -negligible if there is a set such that and . A property of is said to hold -almost everywhere if the set of points in where this property fails is -negligible.

3 Results

We first show that optimal warping paths are unique almost everywhere. Then we geometrically describe the location of the non-unique set. Finally, we discuss the implications of the proposed results on learning in DTW spaces.

Let bet the set of all pairs of time series, where has length and has length . We regard the set as a Euclidean space and assume the Lebesgue-Borel measure space .111See Remark 7 for an explanation of why we regard as a Euclidean space. The multi optimal-path set of is defined by

This set consists of all pairs with non-unique optimal warping path. To assert that is -negligible, we show that is a subset of a set of measure zero. For this, consider the multi-path set

The set consists of all pairs that can be aligned along different warping paths with identical cost. Obviously, the set is a subset of . The next theorem states that is a set of measure zero.

Theorem 1.

Let be the Lebesgue-Borel measure space. Then .

From Theorem 1 and immediately follows that is -negligible.

Corollary 2.

Under the assumptions of Theorem 1 the set is -negligible.

Thus, optimal warping paths are unique -almost everywhere in . Even more generally: The property that all warping paths have different cost holds -almost everywhere in .

We describe the geometric form of the multi-path set . For this we identify with , where . Thus, pairs of time series are summarized to , henceforth denoted as . By we denote the set of all ()-matrices with elements from . Finally, the zero set of a function is of the form

From the proof of Theorem 1 directly follows that the set is the union of zero sets of quadratic forms.

Corollary 3.

Under the assumptions of Theorem 1, there is an integer and symmetric matrices such that

The number of zero sets in Corollary 3 grows exponentially in and . From the proof of Theorem 1 follows that , where

is the Delannoy number [1]. The Delannoy number counts the number of all warping paths in lattice . Table 1 presents the first Delannoy numbers up to and . We see that there are more than half a million warping paths in a ()-lattice showing that is the union of more than 178 billion zero sets. For two time series of length , the number of warping paths is , which is more than trillions. Thus, the multi-path set of two time series of length is the union of more than octillion zero sets, that is . An open question is the number of zero sets that form the multi optimal-path set . The example in Figure 3 indicates that the multi optimal-path set can be much smaller than the multi-path set .

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
2 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 15 17
3 1 5 13 25 41 61 85 113 145
4 1 7 25 63 129 231 377 575 833
5 1 9 41 129 321 681 1,289 2,241 3,649
6 1 11 61 231 681 1,683 3,653 7,183 13,073
7 1 13 85 377 1,289 3,653 8,989 19,825 40,081
8 1 15 113 575 2,241 7,183 19,825 48,639 108,545
9 1 17 145 833 3,649 13,073 40,081 108,545 265,729
10 1 19 181 1,159 5,641 22,363 75,517 224,143 598,417
Table 1: Delannoy numbers for (rows) and (columns).
Figure 3: Illustration of the multi-path set and multi optimal-path sets for the pair of time series and with varying values for and . The Delannoy number is . Hence, the multi-path set consists of zero sets of quadratic forms as indicated by colored curves. The subset of multi optimal-path set is highlighted by fat curve segments.

3.1 Discussion

We discuss the implications of Theorem 1 for learning in DTW spaces.

3.1.1 Learning

This section shows that almost-everywhere uniqueness implies almost-everywhere differentiability of the underlying cost function.

To convey the line of argument, it is sufficient to restrict to the problem of averaging time series as representative for other, more complex learning problems. In contrast to computing the average in Euclidean spaces, time series averaging is a non-trivial task for which the complexity class is currently unknown [3].

Let be a sample of time series, possibly of varying length. Consider the cost function of the form


is a loss function. Common loss functions for averaging time series are the identity

and the squared loss . The goal of time series averaging is to find a time series of length that minimizes the cost .

The challenge of time series averaging is to minimize the non-differentiable cost function . We show that almost-everywhere uniqueness of optimal warping paths implies almost-everywhere differentiability of the cost function and provides a stochastic (incremental) update rule.

We express the DTW distance as a parametrized function. Suppose that is a time series. Then the parametrized DTW function restricted to the set is of the form . We have the following result:

Proposition 4.

Suppose that and are two time series with unique optimal warping path. Then the function is differentiable at and its gradient is a time series of the form

where is an optimal warping path.

The proof follows from [19] after reducing to a piecewise smooth function. By construction, the cost of warping and along warping path is differentiable as a function of the second argument . Non-differentiability of is caused by non-uniqueness of an optimal warping path between and . In this case we have

where are two distinct optimal warping paths. Then it can happen that

showing that is non-differentiable at .

Next, suppose that the loss function is differentiable and an optimal warping path between time series and is unique. Then the individual cost is also differentiable at with gradient

Differentiability of gives rise to a stochastic (incremental) update rule of the form


where is the step size and is an optimal warping path between and . We can also apply the stochastic update rule (1) in cases where an optimal warping path between and is not unique. In this case, we first (randomly) select an optimal warping path from the set . Then we update by applying update rule (1).

Updating at non-differentiable points according to the rule (1) is not well-defined. In addition, it is unclear whether the update directions are always directions of descent, for learning problems in general. The next result confines both issues to a negligible set.

Corollary 5.

Suppose that and is a differentiable loss function. Then the functions

are differentiable -almost everywhere on .

Corollary 5 directly follows from Prop. 4 together with Theorem 1. In summary, almost-everywhere uniqueness of optimal warping paths implies almost-everywhere differentiability of the individual cost . The latter in turn implies that update rule (1) is a well-defined stochastic gradient step almost everywhere.

The arguments in this section essentially carry over to other learning problems in DTW spaces such as k-means, self-organizing maps, and learning vector quantization. We assume that it should not be a problem to transfer the proposed results to learning based on DTW similarity scores as applied in warped-linar classifiers [11, 13].

3.1.2 Learning Vector Quantization in DTW Spaces

Learning vector quantization (LVQ) is a supervised classification scheme introduced by Kohonen [15]. A basic principle shared by most LVQ variants is the margin-growth principle [12]. This principle justifies the different learning rules and corresponds to stochastic gradient update rules if a differentiable cost function exists. As the k-means algorithm, the LVQ scheme has been generalized to DTW spaces [12, 23]. In this section, we illustrate that a unique optimal-warping path is a necessary condition to satisfy the margin-growth principle in DTW spaces as proved in [12], Theorem 12.

As a representative example, we describe LVQ1, the simplest of all LVQ algorithms [15]. Let be the -dimensional Euclidean space and let be a set consisting of class labels. The LVQ1 algorithm assumes a codebook of prototypes with corresponding class labels . As a classifier, LVQ1 assigns an input point to the class of its closest prototype , where

LVQ1 learns a codebook on the basis of a training set . After initialization of , the algorithm repeats the following steps until termination: (i) Randomly select a training example ; (ii) determine the prototype closest to ; and (iii) attract to if their class labels agree and repel from otherwise. Step (iii) adjusts according to the rule

where is the learning rate, the sign is positive if the labels of and agree (), and negative otherwise (). The update rule guarantees that adjusting makes an incorrect classification of more insecure. Formally, if the learning rate is bounded by some threshold , the LVQ1 update rule guarantees to increase the hypothesis margin

where () is the closest prototypes of with the same (different) class label.

The different variants of LVQ have been extended to DTW spaces by replacing the squared Euclidean distance with the squared DTW distance [12, 23]. The update rule is based on an optimal warping path between the current input time series and its closest prototpye. In asymmetric learning [12], the margin-growth principle always holds for the attractive force and for the repulsive force only when the optimal warping path is unique (as a necessary condition).


We conclude this sections with two remarks.

Remark 6.

Proposition 4 states that uniqueness of an optimal warping path between and implies differentiability of at . The converse statement does not hold, in general. A more general approach to arrive at Prop. 4 and Corollary 5 is as follows: First, show that a function is locally Lipschitz continuous (llc). Then invoke Rademacher’s Theorem [7] to assert almost-everywhere differentiability of . By the rule of calculus of llc functions, we have:

  • is llc on , because the minimum of continuously differentiable functions is llc.

  • If the loss is llc, then is llc, because the composition of llc functions is llc. ∎

Remark 7.

Measure-theoretic, geometric, and analytical concepts are all based on Euclidean spaces rather than DTW spaces. The reason is that contemporary learning algorithms are formulated in such a way that the current solution and input time series are first projected into the Euclidean space via optimally warping to the same length. Then an update step is performed and finally the updated solution is projected back to the DTW space. Therefore, to understand this form of learning under warping, we study the DTW distance as a function restricted to the Euclidean space , where is the length of and is the length of . ∎

4 Conclusion

The multi-path set is negligible and corresponds to the union of zero sets of exponentially many quadratic forms. As a subset of the multi-path set, the multi optimal-path set is also negligible. Therefore optimal warping paths are unique almost everywhere. The implications of the proposed results are that adverse effects on learning in DTW spaces caused by non-unique optimal warping paths can be controlled and learning in DTW spaces amounts in minimizing the respective cost function by (stochastic) gradient descent almost everywhere.


B. Jain was funded by the DFG Sachbeihilfe JA 2109/4-1.

Appendix A Proofs

The appendix presents the proof of Theorem 1 and Proposition 4. We first consider the univariate case () in Sections A.1 and A.2. Section A.1 introduces a more useful representation for proving the main results of this contribution and derives some auxiliary results. Section A.2 proves the proposed results for the univariate case. Finally, Section A.3 generalizes the proofs to the multivariate case.

a.1 Preliminaries

We assume that elements are from , that is . We write instead of to denote a time series of length . By we denote the -th standard basis vector of with elements

Definition 8.

Let be a warping path with points . Then

is the pair of embedding matrices induced by warping path .

The embedding matrices have full column rank due to the boundary and step condition of the warping path. Thus, we can regard the embedding matrices of warping path as injective linear maps and that embed time series and into by matrix multiplication and . We can express the cost of aligning time series and along warping path by the squared Euclidean distance between their induced embeddings.

Proposition 9.

Let and be the embeddings induced by warping path . Then

for all and all .


[21], Proposition A.2. ∎

Next, we define the warping and valence matrix of a warping path.

Definition 10.

Let and be the pair of embedding matrices induced by warping path . Then the valence matrix and warping matrix of warping path are defined by

The definition of valence and warping matrix are oriented in the following sense: The warping matrix aligns a time series to the time axis of time series . The diagonal elements of the valence matrix count the number of elements of warped onto the same element of . Alternatively, we can define the complementary valence and warping matrix of by

The complementary warping matrix warps time series to the time axis of time series . The diagonal elements of the complementary valence matrix counts the number of elements of warped onto the same element of .

Let be a warping path of length with induced embedding matrices and . The aggregated embedding matrix induced by warping path is defined by

where . Then the symmetric matrix is of the form

We use the following notations:

The next result expresses the cost by the matrix .

Lemma 11.

Let be the aggregated embedding matrix induced by warping path . Then we have

for all .


Suppose that , where and are the embedding matrices induced by . Let . Then we have

The last auxiliary result shows that the zero set of a non-zero quadratic form has measure zero.

Lemma 12.

Let matrix be non-zero and symmetric. Then

where is the Lebesgue measure on .



is symmetric, there is an orthogonal matrix

such that is a diagonal matrix. Consider the function

where the are the diagonal elements of . Since is non-zero, there is at least one . Hence, is a non-zero polynomial on . Then the set is measurable and has measure zero [4].

We show that the set is also a set of measure zero. Consider the linear map

First, we show that .

  • : Suppose that . With we have

    This shows that . From follows that .

  • : Let . Then for some . Hence, and we have

    This shows that .

Next, we show that . Observe that the linear map is continuously differentiable on a measurable set with Jacobian . Applying [2], Prop. 3.7.3 gives

Since is orthogonal, we have . Thus, we find that

Finally, the assertion follows from . ∎

a.2 Proof of Theorem 1 and Proposition 4

This section assumes the univariate case ().

Proof of Theorem 1:
Suppose that . We use the following notations for all :

  1. denotes the aggregated embedding matrix induced by warping path .

  2. and are the valence and warping matrices of .

  3. and are the complementary valence and warping matrices of .

  4. with denotes the cost of aligning and along warping path .

For every with and for every , we have

where is a symmetric matrix of the form

For the warping paths and are different implying that the warping matrices and , resp., are also different. Hence, is non-zero and from Lemma 12 follows that has measure zero. Then the union

of finitely many measure zero sets also has measure zero. It remains to show that .

  • : Suppose that . Then there are indices with such that the costs of aligning and along warping paths and are identical, that is . Setting gives

    Hence, and therefore .

  • : Let . Then there is a set containing . From follows that and are two warping paths between and with identical costs. Hence, . This proves the assertion.∎

Proof of Proposition 4:
To show the proposition, we first define the notion of piecewise smooth function. A function is piecewise smooth if it is continuous on and for each there is a neighborhood of and a finite collection of continuously differentiable functions such that

for all .


We show that the function is piecewise smooth. The function is continuous, because all are continuous and continuity is closed under the min-operation. In addition, the functions are continuously differentiable as functions in the second argument. Let and let be a neighborhood of . Consider the index set

By construction, we have for all . This shows that is piecewise smooth. Then the assertion follows from [19], Lemma 2. ∎

a.3 Generalization to the Multivariate Time Series

We briefly sketch how to generalize the results from the univariate to the multivariate case. The basic idea is to reduce the multivariate case to the univariate case. In the following, we assume that and are two -variate time series and is a warping path between and with elements .

First observe that a -variate time series consists of individual component time series . Next, we construct the embeddings of a warping path. The -variate time warping embeddings and induced by are maps of the form

The maps and can be written as

where and are the embedding matrices induced by . Since and are linear, the maps and are also linear maps. We show the multivariate formulation of Prop. 9.

Proposition 13.

Let and be the -variate embeddings induced by warping path . Then

for all and all .


The assertion follows from

Due to the properties of product spaces and product measures, the proofs of all other results can be carried out componentwise.


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