How DLSS 3 differs from your TV’s soap opera effect

A performance comparison of Spider-Man Remastered with DLSS 3 on and off.

While DLSS 3 and TV motion smoothing, which results in the soap opera effect, are fundamentally similar, DLSS 3 is designed to solve the problems that TV motion smoothing causes especially for video games. This makes any comparison between the two technologies pointless.

You may have heard that NVIDIA’s new DLSS 3 technology for its RTX 40-series GPUs is no different from the dreaded “soap opera” effect seen on TVs, but the truth is that it’s a qualitatively different version of the same idea.

How NVIDIA DLSS 3 works

DLSS 3 (Deep Learning Super Sampling) is a feature exclusive to NVIDIA’s 40-series graphics cards and (presumably) later models. It is a technology designed to increase game frame rates while still producing a high-resolution image.

DLSS 3 consists of three components: DLSS 2, NVIDIA Reflex and frame interpolation.

DLSS 2 uses a machine learning algorithm and special acceleration hardware on the GPU to take a low-resolution frame normally rendered by the GPU and “upscale” it to the target resolution, such as 1440p or 4K UHD. This increases the frame rate because the GPU doesn’t have to render such a detailed image, but still delivers a final image that looks like it was rendered at high resolution.

NVIDIA Reflex is a technology that optimizes a game’s rendering pipeline to reduce latency between providing input to the game (for example, pulling the trigger in a shooter) and seeing that input on screen.

Frame interpolation takes two frames before they are sent to the screen. It then generates an entirely new frame to fit in between using machine learning and special hardware that speeds up how quickly that intermediate frame can be generated.

Remark: You may be thinking that this doesn’t seem to be a case of DLSS 3 replacing DLSS 2, and you’d be right! DLSS 3 is not really “DLSS” at all. Instead, a name like DLFG (Deep Learning Frame Generation) would have been more appropriate. We have no idea why NVIDIA chose this naming convention, but DLSS 3 is DLSS 2 plus NVIDIA Reflex plus frame interpolation.

Together, these three technologies produce the results we see in games that support DLSS 3, but why do people compare it to the hated “soap opera effect” on TVs?

Frame Interpolation and the “Soap Opera Effect”

Frame interpolation is an option on almost every modern flat panel display. Flat panel “sample and hold” displays, including all LCD and OLED panels, suffer from a perceived “lubrication”. There are several ways to counter this, such as Black Frame Insertion, but a more common solution is frame interpolation. It goes by different names depending on the brand of your TV, but it’s usually called something like Smooth Motion or Motion Plus.

It’s called the “soap opera” effect because soap operas have a certain fluidity to them due to the use of high frame rate video cameras rather than film cameras at the more “cinematic” rate of 24 frames per second.

Motion smoothing can ruin content that isn’t made to be viewed at different frame rates than what was filmed at, but motion smoothing has its place. It primarily enhances content such as sporting events by cleaning up the smudges these high-motion activities produce.

Since many TV manufacturers had this feature enabled by default, it quickly got a bad rap, but motion smoothing is a great technology if you use it correctly. Unfortunately, since DLSS 3 also uses some form of motion smoothing, some of that negative sentiment towards the soap opera effect seems to have rubbed off on it.

How is DLSS 3 different?

There are a few key differences between TV motion smoothing and DLSS 3. If you turn on motion smoothing to try and make a game look smoother, you get a lot of input lag. That is, the time from when you press a button on the controller to when you see your action reflected on the screen, as we mentioned above.

This happens because it takes a long time for the TV to make those interpolated frames. This doesn’t matter when you’re passively watching a movie or show, but trying to interact with something in real time can make a game unplayable.

This is why most modern TVs have some kind of “game mode” where image post-processing effects like smoothing are omitted. This means that the image quality can take a beating, but your games will feel snappy and responsive.

DLSS 3 specifically attempts to address this weakness of motion smoothing by reducing input latency. Since NVIDIA Reflex is a mandatory part of DLSS 3, this already compensates for the extra latency of the interpolation process. In addition, DLSS 3 GPUs have special hardware acceleration that speeds up how fast the interpolated frame can be generated while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.

Based on the tests and benchmarks we’ve seen, the end result is that, unlike TV motion smoothing, enabling DLSS 3 reduces input lag compared to native rendering of the game, while overall there is only slightly more lag than DLSS 2 with Reflex enabled.

This probably makes it unsuitable for competitive gamers playing titles like Counter-Strike, but for everyone else, this slight difference in latency probably won’t matter in light of smoother movement.

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