Many applications use an active coherent illumination and analyze the variation of the polarization state of optical signals. However, as a result of the use of coherent light, these signals are generally strongly perturbed with speckle noise. This is the case, for example, for active polarimetric imaging systems that are useful for enhancing contrast between different elements in a scene. We propose a rigorous definition of the minimal set of parameters that characterize the difference between two coherent and partially polarized states. Indeed, two states of partially polarized light are a priori defined by eight parameters, for example, their two Stokes vectors. We demonstrate that the processing performance for such signal processing tasks as detection, localization, or segmentation of spatial or temporal polarization variations is uniquely determined by two scalar functions of these eight parameters. These two scalar functions are the invariant parameters that define the polarimetric contrast between two polarized states of coherent light. Different polarization configurations with the same invariant contrast parameters will necessarily lead to the same performance for a given task, which is a desirable quality for a rigorous contrast measure. The definition of these polarimetric contrast parameters simplifies the analysis and the specification of processing techniques for coherent polarimetric signals.
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