I've come across the Iterative Closest Point algorithm using quaternions (as described in "A Method for Registration of 3-D Shapes" by Besl and McKay) and I'm wondering, why it works. To me it seems like some magical algorithms, because I have no idea why the eigenvector corresponding to the maximum of the eigenvalue of the matrix Q turns out to be the optimal rotation. Also, I don't know why the matrix Q has to look like it does.

I'd appreciate any explanation as well as any links to sources that derive or proof the algorithm.

Thanks in advance!


That paper uses the Horn method for computing the best rotation (unit quaternion) aligning two sets or corresponding 3D vectors.

Horn method is described in detail in the paper: "Closed-form solution of the absolute orientation using unit quaternions".

In his paper Horn is looking for the unit quaternion maximizing the following functional:

$arg \max_q E(q) = \sum_i E_i(q)$

S.t. $q q^* = 1$

Where $q$ is the unit quaternion to find and $E_i(q)$ is:

$E_i(q) = (q x_i q^*) \cdot y_i$

Given the sets of corresponding pure quaternion vectors $\{x_i\}$ and $\{y_i\}$.

The first thing that Horn does is to switch from quaternion algebra to linear algebra by expressing the quaternion products in terms of matrix products:

$arg \max_q E(q) = \sum_i E_i(q)$

$E_i(q) = q^T N_i q$

S.t $q^T q = 1$

This time $q$ is a $4 \times 1$ column vector and $N_i$ is a $4 \times 4$ matrix formed using only $x_i$ and $y_i$.

Departing from quaternion expression: $ (q x_i q^*) \cdot y_i = (q x_i) \cdot (y_i q)$

That can be transformed to linear algebra language as: $(R_x q)^T (R_y q) = q^T ( R_x^T R_y) q = q^T N_i q$

The maximization can be expressed as:

$arg \max_q E(q) = q^T (\sum_i N_i) q$

S.t $q^T q = 1$

Since $N = \sum_i N_i$ is symmetric (because is a sum of symmetric matrices), according to the spectral theorem, the quadratic form $q^T N q$ subject to constraint $q^T q = 1$ has a max value when $q$ is one of the eigenvectors of $N$, specifically the one with the largest eigenvalue.


Since $N$ is real symmetric matrix the spectral theorem guarantee that $N$ can be decomposed as $N = V^T A V$. Where $V$ is orthonormal matrix which columns are eigenvectors of $N$ and $A$ is diagonal matrix with eigenvalues of $N$.

$q^T (V^T A V) q = p^T A p$

$p^T A p = \sum_i {a_i p_i^2}$

It turns out that:

$\sum_i {a_i p_i^2} < a_0 \sum_i { p_i^2}$ being $a_0$ the largest eigenvalue, since $\sum_i { p_i^2} = 1$.

$\sum_i {a_i p_i^2} < a_0$

So we can pick $q$ to be the eigenvector (column of $V$) corresponding to the largest eigenvalue $a_0$ to achieve the largest posible value of the quadratic form.

That concludes the proof.

You can find it more detailed at: Horn paper Appendix 3 or here:


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