A universal serial bus (USB) microcontroller is a computerized part of a device that controls the USB functions on a device. A microcontroller is a standalone computer device that is frequently used inside non-computer devices, like engines, telephones, and power tools. Generally, a microcontroller contains all of the programming, memory, and processing hardware it needs to perform its designated task. Adding USB functionality to a microcontroller allows its functions to be accessed through a USB port.
USB microcontrollers perform their functions using USB plugs or ports. Usually, this is to allow a device to connect to a computer through a USB port instead of an internal connection. Some devices come with their driver programs on USB memory sticks that automatically install the software when the drive is plugged in. Many devices use a USB plug to operate, from memory devices to musical equipment. External wireless Internet adapters and keyboard video and mouse (KVM) controllers are also devices containing a USB microcontroller.
Other examples of devices that might use a USB microcontroller include printers, cellular phones, or gaming consoles. A common type of USB microcontroller is a USB card media reader. This type of device gives a computer the ability to read media cards like those found in digital cameras. In addition to their use in home devices, microcontrollers are also key in controlling high-tech scientific devices like those used in airplanes or in embedded in equipment used in space exploration.
Microcontrollers are usually very small computer chips, and are often around the size of a postage stamp, though they can be larger. Since a microcontroller is a self-contained computerized unit, a microcontroller is often used as an embedded system, which means that it is placed inside something to perform a specific task. A device containing a microcontroller can be a computer, but it is more often a non-computerized device that uses the microcontroller for a computerized function. An example of this might be a timer inside an electric toothbrush.
In addition to appearing in consumer appliances and electronics, the microcontroller is also common in robotics. Robotics is the field of technology that studies robots and how they might be used to benefit society. In a robot, a USB microcontroller could be used to introduce data or programming to a robot. A USB microcontroller embedded in a robot could be used to communicate with a USB device, like a thumb drive containing software programs for the robot.