Are you looking at me?

If you clap eyes on the object of your desire at the bus stop, don't let them slip away - log on and find love
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The idea of love at first sight is irresistible. The fairy-tale romantic premise, in which two star-aligned lovers successfully convert a fleeting exchange of glances into a passionate affair has underpinned a thousand film scripts and at least as many works of literature.

But our own experiences are usually derailed because we are looking the wrong way, or because we blurt out an inappropriate greeting - or, even more frequently, because we say nothing at all. Thwarted by nervousness, we're left to gaze at someone slowly moving out of sight on a packed escalator, as we curse our shyness and wonder what might have been.

Over the years, magazines' classified sections have acknowledged these missed opportunities with "Once Seen" or "I Saw You" columns, which offer a sliver of hope to those people seeking to rectify their blunders: "9th January, 7.30am, Wimbledon station. You raised your eyebrows as I spilled coffee down my front. Can't stop thinking about you. Box 7943."

And, now, an internet entrepreneur has seized the opportunity to assist the tongue-tied in their pursuit of a tryst worthy of Mills and Boon. "I suppose I see myself as a cyber-Cilla Black," says Oliver Schofield, the Nottingham-based creator of the website isawyou today.com. "I'm just looking to give fate a helping hand. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen someone I fancied and imagined settling down with them before watching them walk away for ever. This gives us all a second chance."

The site, which originally only covered London's Underground network, now contains an expanding database of sightings from all over Great Britain. Visitors to the site click on their part of the country, read a few messages, and, occasionally, read descriptions of themselves going about their business. Already, about 10,000 registered users have posted details of their dream dates on the site, forming an extensive catalogue of "what ifs".

"When I started the site, I was living in London," explains Schofield. "I'd been there about four months, and I didn't know anybody. I certainly didn't have a girlfriend. Then, one day, I was sitting on the Tube, and saw an advert with a big arrow pointing down at the person sitting opposite me. It got me thinking about advertising that could be targeted at just one person, and it just roller coastered from there."

Aware that making the process too difficult or intimidating would distract people from their impulsive urge to locate their potential paramour, Schofield has made it free to register, and easy to post messages. It also allows lonely-hearters to place ads without having to confirm the details over the phone - an experience remembered all too well by Sophie Hall, a writer from Wimbledon, who once placed an advert in Time Out. "I was incredibly embarrassed when the woman rang me to confirm all the details. I hadn't really banked on having to speak to anyone, and I suddenly realised how desperate it might have sounded."

The main obstacle to success, though, is that it's impossible to know how many people have found love through these means. "We've been running 'I Saw You' for five or six years, but we've got no idea if it has ever worked," says Pam Bacon of Time Out.

Not that that stops the true romantics among us. "I was convinced that my ad would work," says Sophie. "I read the column avidly, convinced that someone might well be looking for me. I just presumed that everybody else read it too."

Sadly for Sophie, she never received a reply. But she keeps a cutout of the ad as a souvenir. "I'd still quite like to find him," she says, wistfully.

Successes at isawyoutoday.com are similarly rare, but Schofield is proud of the ones that have worked out. "I think it has worked for about a dozen couples. Out of 10,000 registered users, the odds aren't great. But I'm still really pleased. Especially when you consider the amazing impact that it's had on the lives of those few people. Your chances are never guaranteed, but we can certainly improve them."

Someone who did manage to find a partner via the site was Vicky Murray, a recruitment manager from Solihull who threw herself heartily into the concept. "Whenever I or my friends saw someone we even remotely liked the look of, we'd just stick a message on there. I never expected to hear from any of them, it was just a bit of fun." But one of her first messages received a reply after just one week. "It was a guy called Martin, whom I'd seen in a local pub. Apparently, he looked at the site quite often - out of curiosity. He replied to my message, and eventually we arranged to meet up again in the same pub."

They've been going out for six months, and she's glad that the opportunity existed for them to be brought together. "I'm not particularly shy, but not even the bravest of people will chat up everybody they fancy."

Nigel Ingham, a web designer from north London, became aware that he was admired when news of the site spread through his office. But it wasn't until a week later, when a second message appeared referring to his morning Tube journey to work, that he was convinced that he was being sought out. "Emma and I exchanged a few e-mails, and agreed that, rather than go on a date, we'd speak to each other during the journey to work the next day. I never thought about the statistics. As far as I was concerned I'd just visited a website, which led to meeting a great person."

Emma improved her chances of finding Nigel by making her description fairly detailed, instead of relying on the usual sparse illustrations - "I sat next to you, you had dark hair." Which was one of Schofield's key considerations when he developed his latest project, paptap.com.

Taking the lonely heart to the next level, paptap embraces modern technology by encouraging visitors to snap the object of their desires with their mobile-phone cameras and upload them onto the site. Or, as outlined on the site's opening page: "U fancy me. U take my pic and send 2 PapTap. I c pic. I mail u. We fall in love."

"I was aware of the limited odds of isawyoutoday.com working for large numbers of people," says Schofield. "Paptap.com theoretically broadens the chances of success."

Of course, it also broadens the chances of stumbling across an unflattering picture of yourself browsing through the sliced ham in your local supermarket. Some may feel complimented by being digitally immortalised as a sex symbol, but it doesn't stop the issue of privacy rearing its head.

"I looked into the legal side very briefly," says Schofield, "but it is all in a spirit of fun. If it takes off and people start hooking up, that's great; if it doesn't, well, I had a go. People will get over it in the same way that they did with internet dating, especially as camera phones become more widely available. There's certainly no sinister motive, I'm just a romantic. And an eternal optimist."

So, the next time we become ridden with anxiety and fail to talk to a beautiful member of the opposite sex, we'd do well to adopt Schofield's optimism. But on the other hand, you could just bite the bullet and speak up. What have you got to lose?

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