String Tensors

OpenVINO tensors can hold not only numerical data, like floating-point or integer numbers, but also textual information, represented as one or multiple strings. Such a tensor is called a string tensor and can be passed as input or retrieved as output of a text-processing model, such as tokenizers and detokenizers.

While this section describes basic API to handle string tensors, more practical examples that leverage both string tensors and OpenVINO tokenizer can be found in GenAI Samples.


String tensors are supported in C++ and Python APIs, represented as instances of the ov::Tensor class with the element_type parameter equal to ov::element::string. Each element of a string tensor is a string of arbitrary length, including an empty string, and can be set independently of other elements in the same tensor.

Depending on the API used (C++ or Python), the underlying data type that represents the string when accessing the tensor elements is different:

  • in C++, std::string is used

  • in Python, numpy.str_/numpy.bytes_ populated Numpy arrays are used, as a read-only copy of the underlying C++ content

String tensor implementation doesn’t imply any limitations on string encoding, as underlying std::string doesn’t have such limitations. It is capable of representing all valid UTF-8 characters but also any other byte sequence outside of the UTF-8 encoding standard. Users should pay extra attention when handling arbitrary byte sequences when accessing tensor content as encoded UTF-8 symbols.

As the string representation is more sophisticated in contrast to for example float or int data type, the underlying memory that is used for string tensor representation cannot be handled without properly constructing and destroying string objects. Also, in contrast to numerical data, C++ and Python do not share the same memory layout, so there is no immediate sharing of tensor content between the two APIs. Python provides only a numpy-compatible view of the data allocated and held in C++ core as an array of the std::string objects.

A developer must consider these restrictions when writing code using string tensors and avoid treating the content as raw bytes or as a view of data in Python.

Create a String Tensor

The following is an example of how to create a small 1D tensor pre-populated with three elements:

import openvino as ov

tensor = ov.Tensor(['text', 'more text', 'even more text'])
#include <vector>
#include <string>
#include <openvino/openvino.hpp>

std::vector<std::string> strings = {"text", "more text", "even more text"};
ov::Tensor tensor(ov::element::string, ov::Shape{strings.size()}, &strings[0]);

The example demonstrates that similarly to tensors with numerical information, a tensor object can be created on top of existing memory in C++ by providing a pointer to a pre-allocated array of elements. Here, an instance of std::vector is used to hold the memory and consists of three std::string objects. So, the tensor object in the C++ example will share the same memory as the strings vector.

Note that ov::Tensor, when initialized with a pointer, requires pre-initialized memory with valid std::string objects created by calling one of the available std::string constructors even for empty string. It is undefined behaviour if not initialized memory is passed to this ov::Tensor constructor.

In the Python version of the example above, a regular list of strings is used as an initializer. No memory sharing is available this time, in contrast to C++, and the strings from the initialization list are copied to a separately allocated storage underneath the tensor object.

Besides a plain Python list of strings, an initializer can be one of the supported numpy arrays initialized with Unicode or byte strings:

import numpy as np

tensor = ov.Tensor(np.array(['text', 'more text', 'even more text']))
tensor = ov.Tensor(np.array([b'text', b'more text', b'even more text']))

If ov::Tensor is created without providing initialization strings, a tensor of a specified shape and empty strings as elements is created:

tensor = ov.Tensor(dtype=str, shape=[3])
ov::Tensor tensor(ov::element::string, ov::Shape{3});

ov::Tensor allocates and initializes the required number of std::string objects under the hood.

Accessing Elements

The following code prints all elements in the 1D string tensor constructed above. In C++ code the same .data template method is used for other data types, and to access string data it should be called with the std::string type. In Python, dedicated std_data and byte_data fields are used instead of data field for numerical data.

data = tensor.str_data  # use tensor.byte_data instead to access encoded strings as `bytes`
for i in range(tensor.get_size()):
#include <iostream>

std::string* data =<std::string>();
for(size_t i = 0; i < tensor.get_size(); ++i)
   std::cout << data[i] << '\n';

In the case of Python, an object retrieved with tensor.str_data (or tensor.bytes_data) is a numpy array with numpy.str_ elements (or numpy.bytes_ correspondingly). It is a copy of underlying data from the tensor object and cannot be used for tensor content modification. To set new values, the entire tensor content should be set as a list or as a numpy array, as demonstrated below.

In contrast to Python, when using<std::string>() in C++, a pointer to the underlying data storage is returned and it can be used for tensor element modification:

# Unicode strings:
tensor.str_data = ['one', 'two', 'three']
# Do NOT use tensor.str_data[i] to set a new value, it won't update the tensor content

# Encoded strings:
tensor.bytes_data = [b'one', b'two', b'three']
# Do NOT use tensor.bytes_data[i] to set a new value, it won't update the tensor content
std::string new_content[] = {"one", "two", "three"};
std::string* data =<std::string>();
for(size_t i = 0; i < tensor.get_size(); ++i)
   data[i] = new_content[i];

When reading or setting string tensor elements in Python, it is recommended to use str objects (or numpy.str_ if used in numpy array) when it is known that the underlying byte sequence forms a valid UTF-8 encoded string. Otherwise, if arbitrary byte sequences are allowed, not necessarily within the UTF-8 standard, use bytes strings (or numpy.bytes_ correspondingly) instead.

Accessing tensor content through str_data implicitly applies UTF-8 decoding. If parts of the byte stream cannot be represented as valid Unicode symbols, the � replacement symbol is used to signal errors in such invalid Unicode streams.

Additional Resources