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Binary format of the negative number for serial device programming

When I happens to program for a step motor controller, I found it uses positive/negative number formatted in 4 bytes to represent the rotating step number with the direction. In the manual it says the the device checks if the highest bit is 1, then the 4 bytes value represent a 31 bits available negative direction step number. However this is really about the signed number representations rather than check the highest bit.