[Embedded lab] has a nice tutorial on building your own heart rate monitor. The monitor works by shining infrared light into the fingertip and looking at the changes in the reflected infrared signal caused by a heartbeat. The IR detector produces a very small AC signal so a couple of op-amps are used to filter and amplify the signal. The output of the filter circuit is then read in by a PIC16F628A, which counts the beats and displays it on a seven segment display. This might be a good project to try if you’ve got your microcontrollers down and you are looking to learn some analog electronics. Its noted at the end that the two main problems with building a circuit like this are going to be cross talk and adjusting the filters. The infrared diode and receiver should be close to each other to allow maximum reflection but you also need to make sure that you don’t allow the emitter to shine directly into the detector because the reflected light will be drowned out by the bright emitter.