Tesla Testing at c4di

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Good reason to be part of c4di number 493: Sometimes you get to drive a Tesla

Today was rather exciting. Tesla came to see us. I’m rubbish with names, and I didn’t write them down, but both fellows who turned up from the company were excellent, both in the talk that they gave to set the scene for the day, and also at the moment when they just said “Get in and drive it”.

So I did. I’ve already got an electric car so the smoothness and silence weren’t that much of a novelty. But the fact that I was manoeuvring a three ton car so easily was very impressive, as was the dashboard display of the vehicles around us as I nervously headed towards the A63. You could see little rendered versions of the cars and lorries in real time. This is a spin off of the self-drive technology and gives you a lot more confidence in traffic.

 Dee settles in for his turn at the wheel…

Dee settles in for his turn at the wheel…

This being close to rush hour, the road was busy, reducing the opportunities for any attempts to realise the 0 to 60 potential of the car, which is apparently only five seconds or so. Dee had a go after I did, and he was a bit more lead footed than me, making the car really leap forwards. He also remembered to have a go with the automatic driving (which I rather stupidly forgot). This was very impressive. It followed the line of the road and kept the car nicely placed in the queue of stop-start traffic that we encountered on the way back to c4di.

Tesla have only been making cars for a few short years, and they’ve had to invent a lot of the technology that they are using. They have a plan, which is to start off catering for the more expensive end of the market before moving into the mainstream. As a quality car, for me the Tesla does the business. The inside was appropriately posh, comfortable and toy laden. It’s a bit on the large side for me personally, I find that the BMW i3 is just perfect for my needs just now, and I don’t really have the spare cash to spend on a toy that big. But I still rather want one.

And I’m not alone. Apparently they are selling more Teslas in the USA than they do BMW or Mercedes cars. During the talk in the morning we were told that Tesla is really just keen to get people living in a sustainable way. If that means getting other car manufacturers to make their own electric cars to compete with Tesla, they say they are OK with that. Well, all I can say is that the competition has its work cut out.

Big thanks to Tesla and c4di for setting up the day. It was awesome.

Cheap Power

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I’m always on the lookout for cheap power. So I was intrigued by these phone battery packs in the pound shop in Hull. It turns out that they are actually quite usable if you need to power small electronic devices. I’m pretty sure that the advertised capacity of 1200 mAh is more than a bit optimistic, but I do know that a fully charged battery powered my “full fat” air quality sensor for well over two hours, which is good for demonstrations and the odd bit of remote sampling.

Apparently there are some that cost twice as much (that’s two pounds) which last around twice as long.

Switch Electronics in Hull

 Don’t try clicking on the Add to Cart option…

Don’t try clicking on the Add to Cart option…

A while back I had the urge to own some cables that had crocodile clips on each end. They are very useful if only have two hands and you want to connect a bunch of things together. I found some in ebay at a good price, ordered them and they arrived in good time. Just what I wanted. Already found them useful.

Before I threw away the envelope I had a quick look at the accompanying slip. Turns out the company that sent them is based in Hull, around fifteen minutes from my house. I went there yesterday and bought a bunch of stuff.

Awesome.

Since the demise of Maplin I’ve been wondering where I’m going to get all the electronic bits and bobs that I occasionally have a need for. Buying from the internet is all very well, but it does introduce a bit of a delay into projects as you wait for them to arrive.

Well, Switch Electronics have solved all that for me. Their prices are pretty keen and they have lots of interesting components, even a special “Maker” section. If you’re based around Hull I’m sure you’ll find them very useful.

HP T6B82A Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw

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I bought a colour laser printer many years ago. The plan was to avoid problems with ink jet cartridges where the ink evaporates and when you want to print something you find that the printer is dry. However, it was not a great success because it seemed to prefer chewing up paper to printing on it. So it ended up on the tip. I’ve still got a cyan cartridge refill for it lying around somewhere though, which serves as a memento of sorts I suppose.

Since then I’ve gone back to ink-jets. But they are a bit slow and since I’m finding more need to print things (Arduino notes for the c4di Hardware Group and HullPixelbot notes for robot builders) I thought it was time to take another look at lasers.

My needs were fairly simple. I wanted a colour printer that could print on both sides of the paper It had to work with all the devices around the house and it must not chew paper. The HP T6B82A Color LaserJet Pro MFP M281fdw (what a name) seemed to fit the bill, and it was available at a good price with the added bonus of 80 pounds cashback from HP. Which should just about pay for the first replacement toner cartridge.

Anyhoo, the printer arrived a week or so ago and so far it has been completely wonderful (he wrote - thereby damming himself and the printer for all eternity….). The print quality is great and the printer worked straight out of the box. No setup as such, just turn it on, enter the WiFi credentials on the tiny touch screen and then browse for it from Windows 10. Printing has come a long way since those days of driver disks and USB cables that weren’t in the box…

The printer will be expensive to feed in terms of toner, but I’m not going to print a huge amount. And the quality of picture printing is really impressive (at least to me). Much better than inkjets on standard paper. The printer has a scanner with a document feeder (single sided only though) and it can even be used to send faxes. Whatever they are.

If you’re after something with a bit more about it than inkjets I think it makes a really good buy.

Surface Go Review

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When I finish writing a book I allow myself by buy a new computer. It's quite a thing for me. Last year, when I finished "Begin to Code with Python" I got myself an Apple iPad Pro. I was hoping to be able to use it to do proper work on the go. It has an OK keyboard and versions of most of the applications that I use. However, I found it impossible to use productively, over and above responding to emails. Simple actions such as copying values from one spreadsheet to another were taxing beyond belief. And of course, there was no way I could use it to write code. It's great for reading magazines and playing Zoo Keeper, but as a way getting something done, it sucks.

So, move forward to the latest book, the C# exam reference that has just gone to print. This time I've gone and bought myself a Surface Go. I got the bigger of the two versions available, with 128G of storage and 8G of ram. Both versions use a Pentium Gold processor, a model I've not heard of before. If the Surface Go used an Intel Atom processor I'd not have bought it. I've lost count of the number of Atom based computers that I've bought over the years. I was always tempted by the low price, but I was also always annoyed by the way that the things ran with the speed that custard flows uphill.

I'd read a few mixed reports of Surface Go performance, but enough people who I respect had said it was OK for me to take the plunge and part with cash. I needn't have worried. The Surface Go just works.  It gets there. If I compare it with my venerable, i7 powered, Surface 3 device it's like comparing the tortoise and the hare.

The Surface Pro 3, like the hare, sets of in a blaze of speed, and then, a few seconds later the fan comes on, the case gets hot, and things slow down to a much more sedentary level. Then a couple of hours after that the batteries go flat and everything stops.

The Surface Go tortoise sets of at a somewhat more sedate pace and maintains that until it gets there. There are no fans, nothing gets hot and nothing slows down. And the battery seems to go on for a lot longer. If you remember the story, you'll remember that the tortoise was the race winner. Enough said.

I've not bought and commissioned a new Windows computer for a very long time. The Surface Go "out of box" experience was very slick, involved Cortana, and had me working and connected to my Office 365 account in about ten minutes. Microsoft Office is already installed andI didn't need to copy all my files onto the small hard disk, just the ones I wanted to have with me all the time. All the rest will be automatically fetched when needed. Of course, there were updates, but these weren't too onerous.

The device arrived in Windows 10 "S" mode. This isn’t a separate version of Windows, its more like a safety catch that, when set, stops you from running anything other than programs from the Windows Store. However, this is easy to remove and in no time I was installing Visual Studio 2017, Visual Studio Code, Python, GitHub, the Arduino SDK and few other tools of the trade. All worked fine. Visual Studio 2017 is a beast of a program and, sure enough, large projects take a little while to load (around twice the time they do on my Surface Pro 3) but once they are open you can work on your code with a commendable lack of slowdown. I'm not going to use it with Lightroom or Photoshop because that's not what I got it for. Although, in a pinch, I reckon it could deliver if I was patient.

The Surface Go uses Windows Hello face recognition to log me in and while it isn’t quite as good as the one fitted to the iPhone X, it is properly useable. The screen is lovely. The sound is OK, within the limitations of speakers as small as they have to be to fit in such a tiny device. Battery like is OK too, nothing like the promised 9 hours, but good enough to remove any battery anxiety during a working day. It's also possible to charge the Go via its USB C socket, so I'm able to use my portable battery pack to top up the charge when out and about.

The keyboard is a smaller version of the lovely type cover on the Surface 3. I've just about got used to the smaller keys and I can type at good speed using it. If you're thinking of buying a Surface Go I'd strongly suggest you get the keyboard, along with an Office 365 subscription that gives you the use of the Office suite of programs and removes the need to have all your files on the device all of the time. I've paired my old Surface 3 pen with the Surface Go and discovered that the drawing and text entry experience is very, very, good. I reckon it's easily on a par with the Apple pencil on the iPad Pro.

I find that the Surface Go is a device that for me brings a bit of joy when you use it. The quality of manufacture and finish is the equal of much more expensive devices. Everything about it feels just right. It is the perfect size to take with you everywhere and has enough processing grunt to allow you to be useful when you get there. They say that the best camera is the one that you have with you at the time. By that yardstick the Surface Go is the best computer.

It's not that good for games though. Fortnite runs jerkily (although slightly better than on my Surface Pro 3). Graphically simpler games, for example Minecraft, run rather nicely. If the lack of Fortnite is making you think you need a more graphically powerful (and expensive) device like an iPad Pro my advice would be to get a Nintendo Switch with the price difference.

I think this is pretty much the perfect student device. Plenty of battery life, a workable processor, and access to proper productivity. You also get premium finish and the ability to be used as a tablet. And a genuinely pleasant user experience. It's a really nice feeling to have a tiny machine with you that you know can be used to turn out some proper work. If you're thinking about getting a little portable computer you really should take a look at the Surface Go. The girl in PC World was saying that they're selling quite a few Surface devices these days. I can see why.  

Smart Meter Time

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Suitably redacted....

I've probably missed a trick here. I got a message a while back offering a smart meter for my electricity and I said yes. I didn't know that the energy companies were still installing the "old new technology" smart meters. According to what I'd read a while back, by this time everyone would be getting the new type, but for some reason (perhaps because it makes it harder to change energy suppliers without losing meter "smartness") the old-new meters are still being rolled out. And I've ended up with one.

It seems typical of the way that things are presently working in this country that an initiative that is supposed to bring us to the forefront of energy management has been sabotaged right from the start by short sighted decision making driven by commercial interests. Not that I'm particularly worried. The way I see it, if I'm in the 9 million who've got the old meters there's a lot of incentive for companies to make us happy in the future.

I reckon it's quite possible that the potential of the second generation of meters will never be realised because nobody will bother implementing the back end services to make them work. They'll just claim that there aren't enough of them out there to make it worthwhile. Yes, that is very cynical. And probably right. And anyway, the firmware in my meter is upgradeable......

Anyhoo, the meter is now in place and beaming my electricity usage to a remarkably cheap looking device that lets me see what happens when I use the kettle. It is supposed to motivate me to save power, but the first thing I wanted to find out was how far into the red I could send the readout by turning things on.....

Apple Homepod Review

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One of the nice things about being a writer is that every now and then you get a note saying that a bunch of people have bought copies of your book and, as a result, you've got some money to spend. It doesn't happen to me as much as I would like, but it did happen last week. 

And so, of course, I used some of it to buy myself an Apple HomePod. What with there being one for sale second hand in a local shop, and me having come into a bit of cash, it seemed like fate was actually willing me to get one. 

I'm glad I did. I've got a couple of Amazon Echo devices and I thought that their sound quality was OK. But the HomePod blows them, and just about anything else I've got, away in terms of sound quality. It's far, far, better than the speaker and sub-woofer setup I have in my working room and has therefore completely replaced it. There is a lot more bass present than there has any right to be. It's actually quite startling.

Some reviewers have talked about the impressively wide sound stage that the speaker manages to create using its assortment of drivers and cunning calibration. I've not noticed this much to be honest. The output sounds like it is coming out of a speaker. But what output....

The setup was a breeze. I just held my phone close to the HomePod the first time I powered it on, tapped Yes to confirm access and away we went. It did such a good job of finding the best tracks in my music collection that I let it do that for around eight hours before I actually asked it to play anything specific. 

Voice control is not as great as it could be. It doesn't understand the artist name "Boz Scaggs" at all. I had to ask for the album by name from my library in the end. And saying "Hey Siri" is not how I like to start any kind of conversation. And when I do every single Apple device in the room pricks up its ears. The computer generated voice of the device is not a refined as Alexa from Amazon. I've gone for the Australian female voice as this sounds the least strange to me. Or perhaps I can't actually tell whether its strange or not. 

I've not used the HomePod for much more than playing music. I will tell me the weather and If I get some remotely controlled kit it should be able to control it. I've got an Apple Music subscription, which makes it a proper free-standing device. Otherwise I'd have to use my phone to get the audio source and play it over Airplay. I've not tried the HomePod as a speakerphone yet. It works in this role, but not in a way that you'll find particularly useful. 

From a software point of view it is a bit limited at the moment. There is a serious shortage of third party skill and, unlike the Amazon Echo, I can't use it to listen to the radio, which is a shame. 

However, it is what I thought it would be when I bought it. It is a super, super, speaker with some indifferent network features and a whole ton of room for improvement. I just hope enough people engage with the product to make Apple fulfil its true potential. Until then I'll be very happy listening to the amazing sounds it makes. 

A Dashboard Camera for 10 quid. What could go wrong?

One of my New Years resolutions should have been "I must stop buying cheap and useless gadgets".  But since I haven't made that resolution, and I found myself in the local grocers looking at the bits and bobs on offer, I ended up buying a little dashboard camera for a tenner. 

It comes with a mounting for your windscreen, a power connector and even a little lithium battery so it can be used away from the car (I want to attach it to a Hull Pixelbot). 

It works really well. The camera is reasonable quality, the controls a bit clanky, there's some HF whistle (which I can't hear) when it's switched on. But overall a win. 

Except for one tiny flaw that I've yet to resolve. You need to add an SD card which is used to store the video. When I take the card out of the camera and try to use it in my computer the files on it are not recognised. I hope it isn't using "write only memory" technology. 

The Ring Doorbell and WiFi problems

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Some time back I got a Ring doorbell. It's an internet connected door chime that contains a camera and motion sensor. When someone rings your doorbell (or stands on your doorstep if you've turned on the motion sensor) your phone (or your Apple watch) goes ping to alert you. 

The doorbell also contains a speaker and a microphone, so you can have a conversation with the person at your door. And for a small sum you can have videos of all your visitors stored in the cloud for later review. 

It works really well. I knew I was onto a winner when number one wife used it to accept delivery of a rug while we were away in Leeds.

Then today, right in the middle of a conference call, I heard someone hammering on the door. I shot downstairs, retrieved the package and started to wonder why my lovely doorbell hadn't told me there was someone on the doorstep. Both it and the sounder in the house had fallen off the network. 

This illustrates a problem with these lovely, connected appliances. They're as good as their connectivity. Wah. So I started digging. And the solution is a bit disturbing. 

My WiFi router has been set to automatically select the quietest WiFi channel. When I reset it on Monday the router had gone and picked channel 13. 

This was a rather stupid choice as far as the Ring doorbell is concerned, as it only supports channels up to number 11. The result was that the doorbell fell off the network. Unfortunately, because nobody had pressed my doorbell (or, at least nobody I'd heard had pressed my doorbell) I had no way of knowing things were broken.

The doorbell "phones home" once a day, and I guess after a while I'd get a message that something was broken, but until then I'd be missing callers.

The rather important moral to this story is that if you have a connected appliance like this, check, your router settings to make sure that it is using a fixed channel in the range 1-11. If you allow the router to pick a channel in the range 1-13 there is a chance that a bunch of your networked devices might suddenly stop working.

Of course once I'd picked a likely channel I then had to boil a jug of water in the microwave oven to make sure that it didn't interfere with WiFi reception in the kitchen. For me it turns out that channel 4 fails when I'm heating things up, but channel 11 works fine. 

Properly Broken Device

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Last week I wrote about "The Broken Device Dilemma", when something you hardly use breaks. Do you try and fix it, or do you throw it away? Of course, if you're me you try and fix it. It's all about the journey. Right?

Anyhoo, my lovely little Sony audio player failed. The battery refused to accept any charge.  It was as if the cable was broken. Of course, being Sony, it's a special cable, not a standard usb one. The good news is that replacements are very cheap, so I got one. 

It didn't work. 

However, playing with the device left me thinking that the battery was broken. This happens with Lithium Ion batteries. So, it was onto eBay to source a battery. I managed to find one, ordered it and it arrived today. Fitting it was great fun. Number one son found the service manual and I had a happy half hour this evening undoing sticky fixers and soldering the replacement battery in. 

It worked. Yay!

The player woke up and played some music at me. Great stuff. But it did seem to get very warm. And then the WiFi stopped working. And then the battery failed. And now it behaves just like it did at the start of this story. Oh well. It looks like something in the player has failed and is taking so much power that that the charging circuit can't keep up. So I think it is properly broken. 

Oh well. Now I have to ask myself the question "If a device you hardly use breaks, to you replace it?....."

Remote Harmony

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Today I spent a little while sorting out the remote control for the telly. I bought this fancy Harmony Remote a while ago in a second hand shop and I think it has turned out to be quite a bargain. I've used Harmony remote controls for a very long time and I've round that they work very well, within the limitations of a totally open loop control system, where the remote just pumps out an infra-red message and has no way of knowing if it has been received or not.

Anyhoo, configuring the remotes is something I don't do often enough to be able to remember all the steps involved. But I do know that I'll have to download a program and then plug the remote control into the computer. I'm using a version of Windows that is several on from the one for which the program was created. I'm installing a USB driver that was written ages ago. I'm using TVs and devices that are comparatively recent. And yet it all worked. The Logitech servers even remembered the settings from last time (because I'd put my Logitech username and password into Password Padlock). Now I can turn on the TV with a single touch.Very impressive.

iPhone X - it will be interesting

 The Kinect's Eye view of a sofa....

The Kinect's Eye view of a sofa....

A few years ago I spent a lot of time playing with the Microsoft KInect. I even wrote a book about it. The Kinect contains a special “depth camera” where pixels don’t give you light intensity, they give you distance. The depth camera works by viewing an array of dots which are projected onto the scene in front of the sensor. Software works out the distance between the dots that the camera sees. The further apart that the dots appear, the further away that part of the scene is. 

As far as I know Apple have put a Kinect sensor on top of the iPhone X which works in the same way. The depth information returned by the camera is a big chunk of how the phone recognises its owner.  

I really hope it works.  

The Kinect worked great for middle  distance readings, but if you got too close all the little dots smudged together into one big dot and the camera stopped working. It would struggle a bit in very bright conditions and I never tried to use it to recognise my face when I was wearing glasses.  

I’m always tempted to get the very latest in technology. I think it stems from my much younger days, when I used to enjoy owning my own copy of the current number one music single, but I think I’ll sit this one out until I’ve seen it work. With glasses.  

Waking up Digby

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We've been trying to wake up Digby my Aibo from ages back. The Sony Aibo was a very ambitious project by Sony to make a robotic pet. I got one a while back just as the product was winding down. I've not played with Digby (as we call him) for a while, but once we'd given them a good charge, one of the Lithium Ion batteries got him going. 

Unfortunately there's something amiss with his head. When he moves to certain positions it seems to think that the joint is stuck and he falls down. Next step is a bit of micro surgery looking for noisy potentiometers and broken flexible circuit boards. 

But we'll get him sorted. 

The Pimoroni Mood Light Rocks

 I just love a busy desk. 

I just love a busy desk. 

A while back I ordered a Mood Light kit from Pimoroni. It never came (sad face). I told them about this and they dispatched a replacement. The same day. With no quibble or question (happy face). It arrived a couple of days ago and today I found enough time to assemble it.

With it being based on the Raspberry Pi I had to find a video display and a keyboard for it to get things going. I ended up using my video projector of Logo Blaster fame and a little remote keyboard that didn't work until I connected it via a usb hub.

The good news is that the Raspberry Pi experience has come on a lot since my early days with my Pi B. The great news is that the kit itself is awesome. Lovely attention to detail, even down to little rubber feet for the stand. It all fits together in a very impressive way and worked first time. If you're thinking of building one, you'll need to solder the connectors onto the Pi and the display device. If you've not soldered before it might not be the best thing to learn on, but if you've soldered a bit you'll have no problems. You'll need a power supply and a micro-SD card but nothing else, the kit has everything and comes beautifully packed in a nice plastic box. 

Once I'd got the Pi going and set up remote access I was able to do everything via my PC, so I could put my keyboard and monitor away. You control the lights (there are 32 neopixel leds on the lamp) from Python, so there is no limit to what you can make the light do. 

I'm very impressed with the kit and the Raspberry Pi Zero that it is based on. The fact that you can get the thing for thirty quid (or even less if they are having a discount offer running) makes this thing astonishing value. You should get one. So much power and potential for less than a full price video game. I'm going to get the Scroll Bot next.

Amazon Echo in Hull

Our Amazon Echo works really well. Except sometimes. The radio service, on TuneIn, frequently stops or breaks up.

If we ask again for the station it plays again for a while and then stops. It used to do this a lot a while back, but it seemed to have settled down.

I'm not sure if it is the WiFi in the house or the networking in Hull. Anyone else in Hull with an Echo had a problem with radio playback?

Return of the Kaossilator

The Korg Kaossilator is a nifty device for making weird sound effects. I got one quite a while back and it has provided the sounds for quite a few projects. Today I was working on Begin To Code Python and I needed a suitably awakening tone for an alarm program that I'm writing. So I dug out Mr. Kaoss.

I remember years ago that one of the marketing pitches behind Duracell batteries was that they didn't leak.

That is not the case now. Ugh. But after a thorough clean up we are back in business and making amazing sounds again. If you're interested, the sound I ended up with is here:

Apple Airpods

Number one son told me not to buy them because I couldn't afford them. 

So I bought them. Go me.

I've got a book on the go, I'm working quite hard (for someone supposed to be retired), and there's a prospect of another book after this. And besides this was close to Fathers Day. Enough said. 

I wasn't expecting to be able to buy them in Hull, but KRCS in Hull had just received some stock and they did look very nice.  

I don't regret the purchase. The Apple Airpods are quite pricey (after all, they are Apple) but their integration with the iPhone and the Apple watch is very impressive. You don't "pair" them in any kind of Bluetooth sense. You just open the dental floss like box they come in and your iPhone asks if you want to use them. And then they just work. With all your other Apple stuff as well. You can also press a button on the case to activate pairing with other Bluetooth devices, but I've not done that yet. 

The earpieces look like slightly longer ordinary earphones, minus the wires. And that is very important. You don't realise how annoying headphone wires are until you get a wireless pair. There's no sudden jolts when the cable catches, or walking away from the desk and watching your phone being dragged off the desk onto the floor. 

They fit perfectly in my ears and I've never really worried about them falling out. Even when wearing them to mow the lawn. Your experience might be different, I'd advise you to try a pair if you're thinking about getting some. 

The headphones work well with the Apple Watch, although I have a bit of a fight making them work with the watch if the phone is nearby. 

The sound quality is good enough. More expensive headphones sound better, as do some cheaper ones. The earpieces don't block out all external sounds, but that's probably a good thing bearing in mind you're going to wear them out and about, and you probably want to hear warning shouts about oncoming busses. Apple happen to own a headphone company and so they're not going to make their headphones sound better then ones they want to sell you for twice the price.

The sound has an emphasis to mid and high frequencies, the bass is there but you won't hear it unless you're somewhere quiet. 

The earphones are powered by tiny rechargeable batteries which are charged from a slightly larger battery that lives in the little case they come with. The case has a lighting connector that you can use to charge it. The earphones will go for around three hours and the case can charge then a few times before you have to get a wire out and plug things in.

The earphones detect when you take them out of your ears, so the music stops when you stop listening. If you only take one earpiece out of the box you can listen in mono. Double tapping the earphone (which probably looks quite silly) triggers Siri. Each earpiece has a microphone in it and uses some fancy audio beam forming shenanigans to pick up quality sound. I used the setup in a conference call and everybody seemed to understand me. 

Of course they are expensive. But they do what they say on the tin. I've used them a lot because they just make using headphones easier.