There are no crowds at a virtual exhibition. In fact, you'll never meet a soul.
"Think of InterAct '96", say the organisers of the world's first virtual reality trade show to take place entirely on the World Wide Web, "as a Woodstock for the digerati - without the mud or traffic jams."

Does this mean the good old days of surly queues, crowded booths and salespeople are about to be swept aside by a trade exhibition you can plug 'n' play at your own desk?

Well, make up your own mind. From tomorrow until Thursday, you can log on, select an "avatar" (computerised being) to represent you, and can wander round the three-dimensional exhibition hall. You can visit 20 virtual reality exhibition booths, each containing product demos, a real-time chat room and a link to the exhibitor's own Web site. Exhibitors include Digital, Cascade and Cornell University. In addition to the product booths, InterAct '96 promises sound and video clips of a dozen or so speaker presentations on such topics as "How to use Intelligent Agents".

"No one will stand in line!" the organisers claim. That may be the theory, but at a preview, the exhibition hall graphic took about 15 minutes to download, the video clips presented themselves at a stupefying one frame per second and the sound failed completely. Technicians mumbled excuses about busy lines but seemed unable to explain how InterAct '96 will handle its anticipated 2 million visitors.

But even if the technology behaves during the trade show proper, it is difficult to see the point of it all. True, InterAct '96 is free, accessible to anyone with a 28.8bps modem, running Windows 95 on 16mb RAM, and will run 24 hours a day over a three-day period. But as the show is primarily an American enterprise, real-time chat rooms will inevitably run on US time and the exhibition itself will serve as little more than an index to exhibitors' existing Web sites. Donald Cuthbertson, of Hoy Active Media, says: "People are attracted to VR without really questioning it. If the companies already have Web sites, I don't see the point of 3D booths." As for video clips of speakers, is anyone really going to waste time and disc space downloading jerky frame grabs of a bloke standing at a lectern? Why not simply make the texts available?

In any case, all this is missing the point, which is that trade shows exist, as Jonathan Goold, managing director of P&O Events puts it, "as the traditional annual gatherings for an industry, where people can meet face to face" and product buyers can examine exhibitors' products before they buy. Mr Goold believes the Net has a role to play in providing additional information about a show or exhibition, but is sceptical of the idea that virtual exhibitions will ever replace the real thing.

InterAct '96 is at