The word digital is most commonly used in computing and electronics, especially where real-world information is converted to binary numeric form as in digital audio and digital photography. Such data-carrying signals carry electronic or optical pulses, the amplitude of each of which represents a logical 1 (pulse present and/or high) or a logical 0 (pulse absent and/or low).
When data is transmitted, or indeed handled at all, a certain amount of noise enters into the signal. Noise can have several causes: data transmitted wirelessly, such as by radio, may be received inaccurately, suffer interference from other wireless sources, or pick up background noise from the rest of the universe. Microphones pick up both the intended signal as well as background noise without discriminating between signal and noise, so when audio is encoded digitally, it typically already includes noise. Electric pulses transmitted via wires are typically attenuated by the resistance of the wire, and changed by its capacitance or inductance. Temperature variations can increase or reduce these effects. While digital transmissions are also degraded, slight variations do not matter since they are ignored when the signal is received. With an analog signal, variances cannot be distinguished from the signal and so provide a kind of distortion. In a digital signal, similar variances will not matter, as any signal close enough to a particular value will be interpreted as that value. Care must be taken to avoid noise and distortion when connecting digital and analog systems, but more when using analog systems.
Since symbols (e.g., alphanumeric characters) are not continuous, converting symbols to digital form is rather simpler and less prone to data loss than analog to digital conversion. Instead of sampling and quantization as in D/A (digital-to-analog) conversion, such techniques as polling and encoding are used.
A symbol input device usually consists of a number of switches that are polled at regular intervals to see which switches are pressed. Data will be lost if, within a single polling interval, two switches are pressed, or a switch is pressed, released, and pressed again. This polling can be done by a specialized processor in the device to prevent burdening the main CPU. When a new symbol has been entered, the device typically sends an interrupt to alert the CPU to read it.
For devices with only a few switches (such as the buttons on a joystick), the status of each can be encoded as bits (usually 0 for released and 1 for pressed) in a single word. This is useful when combinations of key presses are meaningful, and is sometimes used for passing the status of modifier keys on a keyboard (such as shift and control). But it does not scale to support more keys than the number of bits in a single byte or word.
Devices with many switches (such as a computer keyboard) usually arrange these switches in a scan matrix, with the individual switches on the intersections of x and y lines. When a switch is pressed, it connects the corresponding x and y lines together. Polling (often called scanning in this case) is done by activating each x line in sequence and detecting which y lines then have a signal, thus which keys are pressed. When the keyboard processor detects that a key has changed state, it sends a signal to the CPU indicating the scan code of the key and its new state. The symbol is then encoded, or converted into a number, based on the status of modifier keys and the desired character encoding.
A custom encoding can be used for a specific application with no loss of data. However, using a standard encoding such as ASCII is problematic if a symbol such as 'ß' needs to be converted but is not in the standard.
Although digital signals are generally associated with the binary electronic digital systems used in modern electronics and computing, digital systems are actually ancient, and need not be binary nor electronic.