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JSNIRF: A lightweight and portable fNIRS data storage format

  • Status of this document: This document is current under development.
  • Copyright: (C) Qianqian Fang (2019) <q.fang at>
  • License: Apache License, Version 2.0
  • Version: 0.4
  • Abstract:

JSNIRF is a portable format for storage, interchange and processing data generated from functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS - an emerging functional neuroimaging technique. Built upon the JData and SNIRF specifications, a JSNIRF file has both a text-based interface using the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) [RFC4627] format and a binary interface using the Universal Binary JSON (UBJSON) serialization format. It contains a compatibility layer to provide a 1-to-1 mapping to the existing HDF5 based SNIRF files. A JSNIRF file can be directly parsed by most existing JSON and UBJSON parsers. Advanced features include optional hierarchical data storage, grouping, compression, integration with heterogeneous scientific data enabled by JData data serialization framework.

Table of Content



Functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, is an emerging neuroimaging technique. It is capable of capturing brain activations via the measurement of hemodynamic responses using non-invasive low-power near-infrared light, thus, having the advantages of being safe, portable, versatile and low-cost. In comparison to functional MRI (fMIR), fNIRS not only provides rich functional information including hemodynamic responses of both oxy- and deoxy-hemoglobin concentrations, but also is capable of quantifying absolute values or variations of tissue scattering and blood flow with superior temporal resolution. As a result, a steady growth of fNIRS based neuroimaging studies and systems has been observed over the past decade.

An fNIRS system typically involves an optical unit providing light sources and detectors, a head-gear that couples the optical signals to the head surface, and additional peripheral devices such as optode (optical source or detector) 3-D position tracking, body physiology (heart rate, SpO2 or respiration, blood pressure) monitoring, and stimulus control. In some multi-modal based fNIRS studies, anatomical scans using MRI/CT or functional monitoring using fMRI, electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) may also need to be recorded.

Most commercially available fNIRS systems use vendor-specific format to store the measured data, making the data difficult to be share among the community. The recent development of the Shared Near Infrared File Format Specification, or SNIRF format, specifically addresses this challenge and aims to provide a unified interface and format to store and share fNIRS measurements between systems across vendors.

The SNIRF specification uses HDF5 as the underlying file format to capture the essential data generated from various fNIRS devices or experiments. In this document, we aim to develop a light-weight, portable, simple interface to store SNIRF-compatible data, and supplements the HDF5 based performance-oriented SNIRF files with additional features such as human-readability, extensible data annotation, data grouping and easy integration with other neuroanatomical or functional measurements that can be potentially stored using JData-based formats

Instead of using HDF5, JSNIRF utilizes JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) as the text-based storage format and Binary JData derived based on Universal Binary JSON (UBJSON), as the binary interface to gain smaller file sizes and faster processing speed. The JData specification provides the foundation for serializing complex hierarchical data using JSON/UBJSON constructs. This permits us to define language- and library-neutral fNIRS data representations using the simple and extensible constructs using the JSON and UBJSON syntax. The use of JSON/UBJSON based JSNIRF data files also extends reading and writing SNIRF in environments where the HDF5 format is not supported, such as MATLAB older than R2011a and GNU Octave.

JSNIRF specification overview

In this specification, we define data containers that are capable of storing SNIRF-based fNIRS data structure, and allow one to convert SNIRF files to JSON and UBJSON based files for easy sharing, parsing and integration.

The purpose of this document is to

  • define a 1-to-1 mapping between the existing SNRIF data structures to a JSON/UBJSON-based flexible data structure to allow lossless conversion from HDF5 data to JSON/UBJSON data
  • demonstrate a set of flexible mechanisms to extend the capability of the format to accommodate additional physiological, anatomical and multi-modal data

In the following sections, we will clarify the basic JSNIRF grammar and define JSNIRF data containers. The additional features and extension mechanisms are also discussed and exemplified.


All JSNIRF files are JData specification compliant. The same as JData, it has both a text format based on JSON serialization and a binary format based on the UBJSON serialization scheme. The two forms can be converted from one to another.

Briefly, the text-based JSNIRF is a valid JSON file with the extension to support concatenated JSON objects; the binary-format JSNIRF is a valid UBJSON file with the extended syntax to support N-D array. Please refer to the JData specification for the definitions.

Many of the SNIRF data subfields have a value of 1-D vector or 2-D arrays. According to the JData specification, N-D array has two equivalent and interchangeable storage forms - the direct storage format and the annotated storage format.

For example, one can store a 1-D or 2-D array using the direct storage format as

 "jsnirf_keyword_1d": [v1,v2,...,vn]


 "jsnirf_keyword_2d": [

or using the "annotated storage" format as

 "jsnirf_keyword_nd": {
       "_ArrayType_": "typename",
       "_ArraySize_": [N1,N2,N3,...],
       "_ArrayData_": [v1,v2,v3,...]

The direct storage format and the annotated storage format are equivalent. In the below sections, we use mostly the direct form to explain the data format, but one shall also be able to store the data using the annotated format. We also note that any valid JSON formatted data structure can be converted to a binary form using the rules defined in the Binary JData derived from the UBJSON specification (Draft 12).


An HDF5 based SNIRF file shall be losslessly translated to a text or binary JSNIRF file using the bellow mapping table

Table 1. A mapping table for HDF5 SNIRF file to JSNIRF SNIRFData structure

SNIRF Data Container JSNIRF Data Container (in JSON format) Required
 /nirs{}                               "SNIRFData" : [                                      
  formatVersion                             "formatVersion": "s",                      *    
     metaDataTags                           "metaDataTags": {                          *    
        "SubjectID"                                "SubjectID":            "s",        *    
        "MeasurementDate"                          "MeasurementDate":      "s",        *    
        "MeasurementTime"                          "MeasurementTime":      "s",        *    
        "LengthUnit"                               "LengthUnit":           "s",        *    
        "TimeUnit"                               "TimeUnit":            "s",        *    
        "FrequencyUnit"                            "FrequencyUnit":        "s",        *    
        "SubjectName"                              "SubjectName":          "s",             
        "StudyID"                                  "StudyID":              "s",             
        "ManufacturerName"                        "ManufacturerName":     "s",             
        "Model"                                    "Model":                "s",             
         ...                                          ...                                       
     data{}                                 "data": [                                  *    
        dataTimeSeries                            "dataTimeSeries":    [[<f>,...]],    *    
        time                                      "time":               [<f>,...],     *    
        measurementList{}                         "measurementList": {                 *    
            sourceIndex                               "sourceIndex":    [<i>,...],     *    
            detectorIndex                             "detectorIndex":  [<i>,...],     *    
            wavelengthIndex                           "wavelengthIndex":[<i>,...],     *    
            dataType                                  "dataType":       [<i>,...],     *    
            dataTypeLabel                             "dataTypeLabel":  ["s",...],          
            dataTypeIndex                             "dataTypeIndex":  [<i>,...],     *    
            sourcePower                               "sourcePower":    [<f>,...],          
            detectorGain                              "detectorGain":   [<f>,...],          
            moduleIndex                               "moduleIndex":    [<i>,...],          
     stim{}                                 "stim": [                                       
         name                                      "name":                 "s",        +    
         data                                      "data":             [[<f>,...]],    +    
     probe                                  "probe": {                                 *    
         wavelengths                               "wavelengths":       [<f>,...],     *    
         wavelengthsEmission                       "wavelengthsEmission":[<f>,...],         
         sourcePos2D                               "sourcePos2D":      [[<f>,...]],    *    
         sourcePos3D                               "sourcePos3D":      [[<f>,...]],         
         detectorPos2D                             "detectorPos2D":    [[<f>,...]],    *    
         detectorPos3D                             "detectorPos3D":    [[<f>,...]],         
         frequencies                               "frequencies":       [<f>,...],          
         timeDelays                                "timeDelays":        [<f>,...],          
         timeDelayWidths                           "timeDelayWidths":   [<f>,...],          
         momentOrders                              "momentOrders":      [<f>,...],          
         correlationTimeDelays                     "correlationTimeDelays":[<f>,...],            
         correlationTimeDelayWidths                "correlationTimeDelayWidths":[<f>,...],         
         sourceLabels                              "sourceLabels":      ["s",...],          
         detectorLabels                            "detectorLabels":    ["s",...],          
         landmarkPos2D                             "landmarkPos2D":    [[<f>,...]],         
         landmarkPos3D                             "landmarkPos3D":    [[<f>,...]],         
         landmarkLabels                            "landmarkLabels":    ["s",...],          
         useLocalIndex                             "useLocalIndex":        <i>              
     aux{}                                  "aux": [                                        
         name                                   "name":                    "s",        +    
         dataTimeSeries                         "dataTimeSeries":      [[<f>,...]],    +    
         time                                   "time":                 [<f>,...],     +    
         timeOffset                             "timeOffset":           [<f>,...],          

In the above table, the notations are explained below

  • {} represents an HDF5 indexed-group which may contain one or multiple sub-groups
  • <i> represents an integer value (signed integer of 8, 16, 32 or 64bit)
  • <f> represents an numerical value (including integers, 32bit and 64bit floating point numbers)
  • "s" represents a UTF-8 encoded string of arbitrary length
  • [...] represents a 1-D (row or column) vector, can be empty
  • [[...]] represents a 2-D array, can be empty
  • {...} represents (optional) additional elements, user-defined data or future extensions
  • ... (optional) additional elements similar to the previous element
  • * in the last column indicates a required subfield
  • + in the last column indicates a required subfield if the optional parent object is included

To convert a SNIRF file to the JSNIRF structure, the storage type in the target subfields must have equal or larger byte length to store the original SNIRF data without losing accuracy; in the case of a string value, the new string must have the same length or longer to store the entire original string value.

The requirements for the dimensions of the 1-D and 2-D array subfields are specified in the SNIRF specification.

The order of the subfields in each element of the SNIRFData object is not required. However, it is generally recommended that the formatVersion and metaDataTags appear before other subfields.

A reversed direction mapping, i.e. from JSNIRF to SNIRF, is not guaranteed to be lossless.

SNIRFData (mapped from SNIRF /nirs{})

The SNIRFData container is equivalent to the /nirs{} object in a SNIRF file. It is a JSON array object with 1 or multiple elements - the first element maps to /nirs or /nirs1, the 2nd element maps to /nirs2, and so on. When it contains only a single element, the SNIRData can be the value of the first element, without needing the array container.

formatVersion (mapped from SNIRF formatVersion)

The formatVersion object, originally stored in the root level in SNIRF, is now a subfield repeated in each of the element in the SNIRFData object. This way, the total element count of the SNIRFData container equals to the total sub-group count of the /nirs{} object.

measurementList (mapped from SNIRF /nirs{}/data{}/measurementList{})

In the SNIRF format, the measurementList is defined as an array of structures (AoS), where measurementList1 defines the source/detector settings for the 1st column of data{}. In JSNIRF, we define measurementList as a structure of arrays (SoA) where each sub-field is a 1-D vector, with the length matching the total count of the SNIRF measurementList elements.

Data Orgnization and Grouping

To facilitate the organization of multiple neuroimaging datasets, JSNIRF supports optional data grouping mechanisms similar to those defined in the JData specification.

In a JSNIRF document, one can use "NIRSGroup" and "NIRSObject" to organize datasets in a hierarchical form. They are equivalent to the "_DataGroup_" and "_DataSet_" constructs, respectively, as defined in the JData specification, but are specifically applicable to NIRS and fNIRS data. The format of "NIRSGroup" and "NIRSObject" are identical to JData data grouping tags, i.e, they can be either an array or structure, with an optional unique name (within the current document) via "NIRSGroup(unique name)" and "NIRSObject(unique name)"

For example, the below JSNIRF snippet defines two data groups with each containing multiple NIRS datasets. Here we also show examples on storing multiple SNIRFData records under a common parent, as well as the use of "_DataLink_" defined in the JData specification for flexible data referencing.

    "NIRSGroup(studyname1)": {
           "SNIRFData(subj1)": {
           "SNIRFData(subj2)": {
           "NIRSObject(subj3)": {
               "SNIRFData(subj3_visit1)":[ ... ],
               "SNIRFData(subj3_visit2)":[ ... ]
    "NIRSGroup(studyname2)": {
           "subj1": {
               "NIRSObject": {
                   "SNIRFData":[ ... ]
           "subj2": {
               "NIRSObject": {
                   "_DataInfo_": {
                       "Operator": "Ted",
                       "HasMRI": true,
                       "HasEEG": true,
                       "Comment": "a multi-modal study"
                   "SNIRFData": [ ... ]
               "NIFTIObject": {
                    NIFTIHeader: { ... },
                    NIFTIData: { ... }
           "subj3": {
               "NIRSObject": {
                   "_DataLink_": "file:///space/test/jsnirf/study2subj3.bnirs"

Recommended File Specifiers

For the text-based JSNIRF file, the recommended file suffix is ".jnirs"; for the binary JSNIRF file, the recommended file suffix is ".bnirs".

The MIME type for the text-based JSNIRF document is "application/jsnirf-text"; that for the binary JSNIRF document is "application/jsnirf-binary"


In summary, this specification defines a 1-to-1 mapping between the HDF5-based SNIRF storage format to JSON/UBJSON based JSNIRF format. Any previously generated SNIRF file can be 100% mapped to a JSNIRF document without losing any information. However, JSNIRF adds readability, portability with lightweight and widely available parsers. It also allows one to easily combine NIRS measurements with other experimental data stored in JData-compliant formats, such as JNIfTI or JMesh, especially in a multi-modal imaging study.

Compared to HDF5, JSON and UBJSON is significantly simpler when encoding and decoding unstructured data, such as the data structure defined in a SNIRF file. The broad availability of JSON and UBJSON parsers, along with the simple underlying syntax, allows one to easily share, parse and process such data files without imposing extensive programming overhead. The flexible data organization and referencing mechanisms offered by the underlying JData specification make it possible to record and share large scale complex neuroimaging datasets among researchers, clinicians and data scientists.