When would-be lovers in Japan meet that special someone these days, they can truly say bells have rung.

Or, more properly, bleeped.A love detector that bleeps when the chance of romance comes near has taken the Japanese market by storm, ringing up sales unseen since a distant cousin, the "Ta-ma-got-chi," burst on the scene two years ago.

But while the Tamagotchi - an electronic virtual pet that has to be "fed" and "cleaned" by punching buttons - was about platonic care, the "Lovegety" is about love, love, love.

The egg-shaped device comes in male and female versions. One has a blue underside and the other pink, and they are small enough to fit in a hand.

Owners can set the device to show display lights according to whether they are in the mood for a simple chat, ready to sing karaoke, or want to get more serious.

When a male Lovegety and a female Lovegety come within 15 feet of each other, a high-pitched bleeper goes off, alerting the owners to a possible rendezvous.

Neither responds to the same sex.

Once a hopeful couple has homed in on each other, a delicate social ritual ensues as they size each other up and, if mutually agreeable, try to match Lovegety program modes. When harmony reigns, the machines flash green.

"Men wanting to meet women, and women wanting to meet men - it's a universal theme, and this toy is here to make the whole process easier, less embarrassing," said Takeya Takafuji, at the Tokyo branch of Erfolg, the firm that makes them.

The devices are certainly proving an attraction for reserved Japanese. Priced at 2,900 yen - around $25 - some 350,000 have been sold since they hit the stores this February.

Men have bought more than half, said Takafuji, because "Japanese men are very shy."

The birth of Lovegety came when an insurance salesman friend of Takafuji's said it would be nice to have a gadget that let people meet painlessly and understand each other's feelings in a flash.

Takafuji took the idea to the president of Erfolg - "success" in German - and after a year of development, Lovegety was ready to strut its stuff.

Lovegety's runaway success was a shock that has given a massive shot in the arm to the six-year-old company, which was originally a manufacturer of modems and producer of Internet pages.

Takafuji said the huge success last year of Bandai Co Ltd.'s Tamagotchi paved the way for the Lovegety.

She said the company hopes to sell three million of the love machines.

Plans are also afoot for a deluxe model by which prospective lovers can talk to each other at a distance of 100 yards.

Many happy relationships have already resulted from use of the Lovegety, Takafuji said, although nobody appears to have tied the knot yet.