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An improved block matching approach to fast disparity estimation in machine vision applications is proposed, where the matching criterion is the sum of the absolute difference (SAD). By evaluating the lower bounds, which become increasingly tighter for the matching criteria, the method tries to successively terminate unnecessary computations of the matching criteria between the reference block in one image and the ineligible candidate blocks in another image. It also eliminates the ineligible blocks as early as possible, while ensuring the optimal disparity of each pixel. Also, the proposed method can further speed up the elimination of ineligible candidate blocks by efficiently using the continuous constraint of disparity to predict the initial disparity of each pixel. The performance of the new algorithm is evaluated by carrying out a theoretical analysis, and by comparing its performance with the disparity estimation method based on the standard block matching. Simulated results demonstrate that the proposed algorithm achieves a computational cost reduction of over 50.5% in comparision with the standard block matching method.