Avatar, the sci-fi blockbuster that has already grossed more than $1bn globally at the box office, has rekindled interest in 3D entertainment.

That’s because a lot of the buzz around the movie, which can be viewed in a 3D flavor, can be attributed to the 3D experience.

So it’s probably no surprise that advances in 3D technology are catching the eye of media executives. Case in point: ESPN plans to launch a 3D network called ESPN 3D in June.

The network, whose launch is set to coincide with the World Cup, will take advantage of new 3D-capable televisions that are on display this week at CES in Las Vegas. Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, thinks the time is right for 3D. He told USA Today that “This is a turning point for 3D“.

He could be right. Although 3D-capable televisions are still expensive, they are priced within reach of those mainstream consumers willing to shell out for the latest consumer electronics.

Like Twentieth Century Fox, which invested up to $300m to produce Avatar in 3D, ESPN is betting that sport and 3D will be a winning combination. It’s committing to keep ESPN 3D running through June 2011 while it assesses the consumer response. And ESPN isn’t alone in testing the 3D waters. Other television companies in the United States, including the Discovery Channel, are planning 3D offerings and a spokesman for satellite cable provider DirecTV says “3D is something we are very interested in“.

Media companies shouldn’t be blinded by Avatar’s 3D success, however. The costs of producing 3D content are significant, so they’ll face the challenge of covering those costs profitably. Whether consumers pay a premium or third parties (read: advertisers) provide a subsidy, the 3D experience will need to prove compelling to a wide base of consumers if the market is going to take off. Since 3D is best applied to certain types of content and won’t appeal to everyone, I suspect the rate of adoption won’t be nearly as rapid as that of HDTV, for instance.

This means the media companies that eventually win with 3D will probably be the ones who prepare for more long-term investments to develop the space.

Photo credit: jurvetson via Flickr.