Ever wondered what it’s like to float down a Tibetan river at 12,000 feet, surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks and limestone canyon walls? Floating Tibet, a new 360-degree video from Will Stauffer-Norris, will give you a much closer idea of what that experience feels like. Stauffer-Norris spent last summer in Qinghai, China, filming virtual reality video with Last Descents River Expeditions. His film showcases the beautiful scenery and culture of the river while Weiyi, a native Chinese rafter, explains what rivers mean to her, and why she thinks they are important for the future of her country.

Canoe&Kayak.com: What inspired you to document this expedition using virtual reality? What do you hope that viewers will gain from this experience?
Stauffer-Norris: The biggest difference with 360 video is felt in a VR headset, like a Google Cardboard, Daydream, Gear VR, or Oculus Rift. When you put on a headset and watch 360 video, it’s like you’re really there- people talk about the remarkable sense of “presence” that you feel. I know that very few people will ever make it out to this remote corner of the Tibetan Plateau, so this short film is a way to be present in a way that goes beyond traditional film.

How do you recommend people view this experience if they don’t have a VR viewer? Is there a cheap option (aka cardboard) that people can buy to get the most out of this kind of video?
The easiest way is to open the video on your phone, and then rotate around- it gives you a “magic window” into the Mekong River. The next cheapest option is to buy a Google Cardboard, which you can get for most phones for $15 (https://vr.google.com/cardboard/get-cardboard/), or many companies are giving them away for free. The best viewing option is to find a friend who has either a phone based VR system like a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream, or a high end VR headset like an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

What were some of the extra challenges of shooting VR, especially out in such a remote area?
The batteries were one of the biggest challenges. I was shooting with a six-GoPro rig, which meant that if one battery ran out of juice, the whole system crashed. So I was very careful with my battery management. I brought a couple car batteries and super old Chinese inverter along in the raft, which I would haul up to camp every night, put in my tent, and use to charge batteries. I also had to run a laptop, because I couldn’t see what I was shooting until I imported each one of the GoPros and stitched all the footage together. I’m sure all these technical challenges will be solved soon, but right now, shooting high quality 360 is an exercise in patience.

I also mounted the 360 rig on an Inspire 1 drone for a few shots — this was tricky because the 6 GoPro rig is about three times the recommended payload for that drone. And there’s no good stock way to mount the rig, so I ended up using cheap plastic zip ties for the critical mounting point. So every flight, I would just tighten up those zip ties as tight as I could, cross my fingers, and launch it out over the Mekong—which is also at about 12,000 feet of elevation, which means the drone has even less flight time than it would at lower elevations.

We’ve heard rumors of some important new protections on the horizon for the Mekong headwaters. So you have any insights from your time there?
The Mekong headwaters area is a remote, mountainous area in Qinghai Province, China. Right now, it’s being used as a testing ground of sorts by the Chinese central government to try out an American-style National Park system. China has two kinds of parks right now—there are the uber-touristy, Disneyland-esqe parks that are more about sightseeing and less about recreation, and there are nature reserves with strictly limited access. This new park will feature recreational opportunities like rafting and hiking, and put more emphasis on people interacting with a place in an authentic way. Last Descents River Expeditions has been involved in the park planning process, and will be one of the first concessionaires in the park to offer trips.

The park designation is a bit of a two-edged sword, as the area is expected to see many more tourists, and will have to develop its infrastructure to accommodate those tourists- but compared to the alternative of dam-building or resource extraction, I think the new park is a great step forward.

Where do you see this tech going in the coming years and do you think it can be a tool for conservation?
There is a lot of hype about VR right now. Some of it is well deserved and some is unfounded, but the technology will definitely have a major impact on our society. I think, like any technology, it has the potential to be used for good or evil- I do worry sometimes about people sitting around with VR strapped to their faces and not going outside, but I think it can also be used to inspire and educate. VR provides a high level of empathy, so my hope is that by showing this short film to a government official or someone who is thinking about going on their first rafting trip, we will be able to provide them a little glimpse into what the reality of actually going on that raft trip is like. The challenge in continuing to work on this technology is making it a complement, rather than a substitute, for real experiences.

Every day there are new announcements, new products, new virtual experiences that are appearing, and the pace is accelerating. I’m cofounding a virtual reality production company in Seattle, Imbue Reality, that focuses on bringing stories in the outdoors into the VR. I think VR has amazing potential, and I’m really excited to try and harness that potential for conservation causes.

— Watch more videos on C&K

— Check out more on paddling China, with Stauffer-Norris‘s 2014 piece on the Salween.