Artem Fedyaev grew up in Moscow around antiques of all kinds. His father is a prominent furniture and antiques dealer there, so Fedyaev’s childhood memories (which aren’t so distant—Artem is 24) are populated with physical objects: an old piano here, a 17th-century fireplace there.
This childhood attachment to objects’ physicality may be one reason why Fedyaev came to find something lacking in his experience of cyberspace. In college, Fedyaev wanted a way to visualize and categorize all the links he liked to visit, so bought a "For Dummies" book on coding, taught himself the basics, and hacked together what he calls "my first room." It was a simple visual representation of a room, with objects that represented his favorite sites.
Classmates kept leaning over to ask about Fedyaev’s experiment, and soon he and his roommate (and later co-founder) became curious about whether there might be a business here. They took a trip to Silicon Valley in February 2012, almost on a lark, and through a series of coincidences wound up meeting an angel investor at the Paramount Hotel in San Francisco. The investor was hooked, and promised $100,000 in seed money if the pair would relocate to San Francisco after graduating from Bryant University.
Today, Fedyaev’s hobby has become a business, with MyWebRoom.com garnering $2.8 million in investment to date. The idea is simple—and indeed harkens back to early notions of web design (though more on that later). Users sign up, choose a 3-D room they like the looks of, and begin to link up their favorite websites and services to objects in the room. Click on the TV at the center for Netflix and Hulu; click on the virtual laptop on the desk for Google; click on the map for Travelocity; the bag for eBay or Amazon; the birdcage for Twitter; and so on. Users have created 40,000 rooms on the site; Fedyaev says that 45% of those remain regular users, and that some 800 power users visit the site as much as seven times a day, staying for an average of 35 minutes each session.
MyWebRoom also taps into the interior decorator in all of us, since you can customize the items in your room, many of which are linked to real brands. On May 12, MyWebRoom launched a new virtual shop, so that you can buy objects you’ve placed in your virtual room in real life, directly through the site.
But isn’t this idea—representing the virtual with objects—precisely what the Web moved beyond years ago? I put the question to Fedyaev, saying his project reminds me of AOL’s old web portals, where you searched with keywords and by subject matter. But Fedyaev is ready with a response, and shows he has looked deeply into the history of the kind of this kind of web design. He points to an early product called Microsoft Bob, which involved a virtual room. Bob is one of the most notorious failures in software.
Fedyaev feels that Bob failed simply because it wasn’t the right moment (echoing, as it happens, Bill Gates himself). Web services didn’t exist yet to be seamlessly connected to the MS Bob room. As for comparable current experiments, like Second Life or PlayStation Home (which also enable virtual personal spaces), Fedyaev says these are really oriented to niche gaming communities, and suffer from a relatively low loading speed. "Our website works on every platform, and it’s not for a niche market." He says that his co-founder’s 83-year-old grandmother was able to activate TV webservices intuitively, with a few clicks.
And even if MyWebRoom does seem at times to be an odd throwback, recent developments in the digital world do pose the question of whether the web might be ready for this kind of design again. The rise of Pinterest has revealed a decorative magpie impulse in many netizens; the rise of the so-called "Internet of things" has revealed a hunger for a linkage between the online and offline worlds; the fall of Google Reader and emergence of Feedly have shown that even the realm of core aggregation utilities are in flux.
The main questions are whether and how fast MyWebRoom can grow its small but dedicated user base, and then how it can monetize. The new Shop, of course, is part of that, and 50 brand partners—including some as lofty as Sony—have signed on. It’s a clever form of product placement, in a way, to get a 3-D avatar of your brand in someone’s virtual room, as a stepping stone towards a meatspace purchase later on. "Our users don’t get exposed to ads," says Fedyaev. "Each object in the room is an ad itself—a real product with a brand behind it." Overall, there are 35 objects in a "room," 27 of which are "active," i.e. able to be assigned a category of website.
Ultimately, too, Fedyaev thinks there is a data play here. "We’re getting unique data no one else can get right now. We can see that a person listening to this song on Pandora was making this purchase decision."
As for Fedyaev himself, he says that he is always changing and customizing the objects in his own virtual room, perhaps as a legacy of having an antiques dealer for a father. "I grew up with all these cool things," he says, but they cycled in and out as clients purchased them. "This week it was this couch, that week it was another couch..." His own childhood was unusual, overloaded with objects, Fedyaev is the first to admit. But in an increasingly digital world, he's betting that others are hungry for a sense of place and physicality to their web experience, too.