Software worker Erin Bell inched across a wooden plank suspended over a deep, rusted pit. When a Stanford University researcher asked her to step off, she wouldn’t do it.

In reality Ms. Bell was walking on a carpet with a virtual-reality headset strapped to her face. “I knew I was in a virtual environment,” she said later, “but I was still afraid.”

The psychological impact of lifelike virtual experiences is just one of the challenges for virtual reality, a technology that might finally have its commercial moment in 2016—after decades of hype.

Samsung Electronics Co. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. recently have released virtual-reality headsets that use smartphones as the screen. And, in coming months, Sony Corp., HTC Corp. and Facebook Inc.’s Oculus unit plan to release higher-end headsets that promise to immerse users in experiences that seem to be all around them.

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